I signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon back in February of 2017 (in fact, I publicly committed to it back in December of 2016). The idea of my sixth marathon felt both exciting and routine. It wasn’t my first, but it was my first in four years; it was the second time I would run Twin Cities. Training started off well, but it became clear pretty quickly that I had over-estimated my bandwidth. I dealt with achilles pain, mental roadblocks, and schedule fatigue, questioning at several points whether I would actually follow through, whether I was even looking forward to the finish line.
And then my grandpa died.
The energy my brain was using going back and forth about the race was suddenly redirected to mourning an adventurous and loving man. For the next few weeks, I continued to run haphazardly, even less sure about my goals. Over Labor Day weekend, three weeks out from his death, as we were winding through mountains of Colorado, I turned to Todd and I told him I wanted to run. I wanted to run for Grandpa. “I’m gonna get it for Gil,” I smiled. “He would want me to finish this.”
In truth, Grandpa thought I was crazy for running marathons. He was an adrenaline junkie who had gotten his kicks ski jumping well into adulthood (including once at Wrigley Field!), ski racing after he retired, and sky diving at 86. He didn’t understand how I could possibly find running interesting, but he knew how hard it was and was about as proud as a person could be every time I finished a race. Instead of getting to tell him about this race at Thanksgiving, I was going to carry him with me on the course in the form of one of his Masters ski racing pins. Grandpa would run his first and last marathon with me.
We flew into Minneapolis on Friday afternoon and spent the next 36 hours settling in, eating pasta, and trying to get organized. The forecast called for cool temps but a good chance of some mid-race rain; I was happy for the temps but the rain had me nervous. I’d never raced in rain before.
I slept hard the night before and woke up around 5:45a.m. for a little coffee and a bagel. The race start was a pleasant 8a.m., and the race start a few short blocks from our hotel, so it felt good to have a few hours to settle my nerves and let my system wake up a bit. It started raining a little before 7, so I threw my “just in case” poncho over my throwaway shirt and hoped for the best. The rain eased a bit and then stopped just before gun time. I knew there was another band of weather expected in a few hours, but hoped I would be far enough along on the course to be minimally affected.
I moved back to Corral 2 from my assigned Corral 1, as I knew today was not going to be a rainbow result. My loose goal was to latch on to a 4hr pace (~9:15) and see how that felt. Todd waved about 1/4mi into the race and I shifted my mind to seeing him again around the 15 mile mark. I had drawn a heart on my hand that morning as a reminder that he was with me every step.
It turns out that running the first ten miles of a marathon is actually pretty easy. I had a huge grin on my face as we wound through downtown Minneapolis, up an on-ramp, and off into its Eastern lake communities. The course is pretty windy and narrow in this section, and the streets filled with spectators. There were moments that felt almost claustrophobic, but I was having a blast reading signs and taking in the experience. One of the great things about TCM is that the race gives prizes for the best cheer sections, so neighborhoods and blocks really go out of their way to make things memorable and spirited. Some hook up speakers, some play tubas or tribal drums or trombones, some hand out mimosas, some inexplicably involve lawn flamingo or bumblebee themes, but all of them were so appreciated and really make the TCM experience as great as it is. At some point around mile 5, an older runner galloped past me shouting, “Come on, everybody! Follow me! We’re running to our beautiful state capitol!” Despite how good the pace felt in those miles, I knew around mile ten, as my brain had an inkling of “huh, not even halfway?” that the second half of this race would not be so easy.
Miles 11-13 were a little weird distance-wise (I was manually lapping at each marker) – 11 read a bit long (even for tangents), 12-13 a bit short – which threw me a little bit. I stopped somewhere just after mile 12 to pee. After holding it for the entirety of the race and hoping it would just absorb back into my system, I was dismayed to see that the cool temps and my good hydration strategy had prevented that from happening. I lost about a minute, but wasn’t concerned. Today was not a day that I was going to watch the minutes. We got some misty rain in this section, but only for a few minutes, and it felt kind of nice in the cooler air. I do remember thinking that there was still a long way to go as we crossed the halfway point and left the last of the lake miles. I crossed at 2:01, still on track for a sub-4 but knowing this was the last time I’d feel that way. These were hilly miles. That didn’t both my legs as much as it seemed to nag at my brain — I started getting confused, as I hadn’t recalled there being so many back in 2012. Just after mile 14, I spotted a college friend I had been anticipating, and we had a rare moment where our eyes immediately locked and there was no confusion or attention-grabbing antics needed. It was a nice boost at a time when I needed one. I locked on to the idea of seeing Todd a mile later, and it was also here that I had my first thought of, “What if I just told him I wanted to drop at 15?” I tried to quickly shake that idea off and gave him a smile as I grabbed his face for a quick kiss. “You’re getting that medal and that finisher shirt. You didn’t come here to quit.” At around mile 16, I let my mind win. I had some knots developing at the base of my spine that felt like two tennis balls, and I let myself stop and bent over in a stretch and allowed myself to walk for about 20s before kicking myself back into gear.
I remember thinking that this was happening precisely the way it had happened in my long runs. Why wouldn’t this be any different? I must have been too caught up in my internal struggle to remember lapping my watch at 17. I walked a bit more in these miles, but never for more than 10-15s at a time for fear that my legs wouldn’t work again. The 4:15 pace group swallowed me at some point, and I felt a bit resigned, but not defeated. Somewhere in here, I also started feeling really alone, and I told myself out loud, “You are NOT alone in this. COME ON.” I didn’t feel bad about walking or about slowing my pace, and I never felt like I couldn’t finish, but there were definitely several points where I didn’t want to finish. It was in those moments that I reminded myself of the finisher swag, and of all the people that had sent me well wishes. They believed in me. They wanted me to finish this. They wanted to be a part of my goal.
I allowed myself to walk a bit longer in mile 21, as I knew that the Brooks Infinite Energy Mile (and steepest portion of the course) was coming up. If my time in that mile was faster than the average of the previous 21 miles, I would win a pair of Brooks’ new Levitate shoes. I justified the walking as sandbagging for some free shoes. I stopped for another bathroom break somewhere in here, too. My stomach had been taking my gels really well so far, and none of the severe nausea I had been experiencing on my long training runs had reared its head. Even still, I had a few twinges of stomach weirdness, and felt a stop might help. In truth, it just felt good to sit for 30s. I looked at myself in the grimy mirror and noticed that some of the ink from my hand heart had rubbed off on the tip of my nose. I buffed it out and told myself to finish this. My brain appreciated the brief moment of quiet and solitude, even if it was in a small, cramped box filled with shit.
As I saw the Brooks Mile Challenge come into view, I started trotting again. About 1/4mi into the split, the course hits a pretty substantial grade, but I pushed myself hard, repeating to myself that I was doing it for the shoes. I didn’t care about blowing up a race that was already blown; I could walk a bit after I hit my goal. My average pace to that point had been around 9:50, and as the time crept up, I kept pushing to give myself as much of a cushion as possible. When it beeped for the split, I had finished the mile in 9:22, and my legs and feet had felt surprisingly good with the faster pace. Had I kept pushing myself mentally in the previous miles, perhaps I would have gotten out of my funk sooner.
I allowed myself to walk for a few seconds to lower my heart rate a bit and give my brain the rest it was craving as a reset. The rain started back up at this point – a pretty steady but light rain. I told myself that this was nothing compared to the time my grandpa once manned the deck of a Destroyer as it listed heavily in gale force winds. The next 1.5 miles was still uphill (though at far less of a grade, and I shuffled my way to the end of that stretch with another walk break (and Twizzler break) towards the end. At this point, I knew I would finish, and I focused on the large houses around me. I tried (unsuccessfully) to spot Hyedi at mile 24, and at mile 25, when the illusive church came into view, I tucked my headphones into my sports bra and allowed the concept of finishing to wash over me. The last 800m is downhill, and I focused on avoiding the slippery paint lines. The last thing I wanted was to slip/trip on a wet, downhill finishing chute. Todd came into view to my right as I entered the straightaway, and I blew him some kisses. A big grin spread across my face as I took my final steps across the finish line. I had done something really hard, despite wanting to quit, despite the weather, despite my sore feet and tired mind. I had finished my sixth marathon in four hours and 24 minutes. I had given Grandpa one more thing to brag about.
My face crumpled a few feet past the finish line as the exhaustion and disbelief and sense of accomplishment hit me. The woman next to me caught my face and gave me a tired and wary “Congratulations” as we shuffled towards our heat blankets. I inhaled some warm chicken broth and clung to the thin aluminum sheet keeping me warm. The rain had slowed a bit, but I focused heavily on not dropping my beautiful finisher shirt as I juggled handfuls of snacks and drinks. The family meet-up is cruelly situated on the side of a hill, and I whimpered my way to the top to wait for Todd to meet me. I set down a few of my snacks and pulled my finisher shirt over my head for some extra warmth. I was cold and wet and needed nothing more than to sit down and ease my aching feet. “Hey, buddy?” I said quietly to the young kid standing next to me. “Can you hand me my chocolate milk?” He warily and curiously handed me the bottle and I gulped it down gratefully. Just as I was started to get anxious, Todd appeared and I crumpled into his shoulder, pulling sobs from deep within my tired soul. His face was beaming and I could feel his pride and admiration and love giving me the life I needed.
We slowly made our way to the light rail station to return to our hotel, and I sank into the train’s seat with gratitude. The snippets of memories poured out of me as the energy started to return (thank you, banana). I could feel my hip flexor tightening up on the train, and as we reached our stop, I realized that walking had become pretty difficult. I tried to massage it a bit, but I was cold and the wind was whipping my space blanket around and I just wanted to be home. I swung my leg around as I walked very slowly towards the hotel, whimpering with every step and blast of wind. We got back to the room and I immediately jumped into the shower, bracing myself for whatever hidden chafe marks might show themselves. Despite some burning in unexpected places, that shower was magical. After 15 minutes of heat, I felt like a new person, and my hip cramp and tired legs were revived. We celebrated with a few rounds at Surly Brewing’s massive tap room and chased that with an outstanding dinner at Bachelor Farmer. The next morning, after sleeping for about 9 hours, I felt pretty good (minus a cranky knee), and we walked another ~7mi to flush out the remaining junk in my legs before we hopped on our flight. I even managed some jumping pictures at the Walker Sculpture Garden, much to Todd’s surprise.
My time running in Minnesota was tough at times, but the amount of love and support I received leading into race weekend still overwhelms me. I received cards and flowers and emails and pep-talk texts. Todd admitted to me after the race that he had reached out to a circle of people reminding them of the race date and suggesting I might want a note of encouragement if they had a chance. His thoughtfulness and care throughout the training process – and especially on race weekend – is and was appreciated more than I can express. The number of people he’s told about my race – Lyft drivers, neighbors, coworkers, friends – is too much to count. He’s been waving my flag higher than I ever could or would.
Ultimately, my race went about as well as my interrupted training suggested. But this race wasn’t about the time on the clock, it was about time with grandpa.
* A big thanks to Mill City Running for the free medal engraving, donuts, and coffee!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Isn’t it hard to cry during a marathon?
Yep. Sure is! I recommend you don’t, but where it happens (like when you’re running next to a man wearing a sign that he’s 76 and running his 21st TCM), your best bet is to try to lock it down before you hyperventilate.
Q: What was the best part of the TCM course?
The lakes are absolutely beautiful, and there’s something really cool about crossing the Mississippi River. I think this time around, passing the “Welcome to St. Paul” sign was my favorite part. It was a great mental reminder that I was almost home.
Q: How sweet is that medal?
I know, right?
Q: Would you recommend TCM?
Enthusiastically. The course is hilly, but nothing that a flatlander can’t easily conquer (even doing minimal hill work). Even the intimidating Summit hill that stretches over about 2 miles towards the end of the course is a pretty low grade and completely doable if you stay within your head and run a smart first half. The crowds here are amazing (despite the rain, they.showed.up.), the weather is generally a little cooler than Chicago, and the race is incredibly well organized. The course is absolutely beautiful, and its reputation as the most beautiful urban marathon is well deserved.