Race Report: Grandma’s Marathon

It was supposed to be cloudy. We all said it as we compared notes at the starting line. Regardless of your weather app of choice, the models said cloudy. At worst partly cloudy. Oh but it wasn’t cloudy. It was sunny. Bright sun. Hot. Humid. No breeze to speak of off Lake Superior. A beautiful day to be outside if you were doing perhaps anything other than running 26.2 miles.

My first ever "black caution flag" race. Not the sign you want to see on the course.

My first ever “black caution flag” race. Not the sign you want to see on the course.

When I arrived at the starting line of Grandma’s Marathon in Two Harbors, Minnesota, the race was under a green flag. All conditions ready to go for a good run. By the first water stop the race went yellow signifying a moderate risk of heat-related issues. Then it went red. By the time I was in the final 10 miles it was black-flag event. “Extremely High Risk” the flag red.

OK. Slight change of plans.

Welcome to my Grandma’s Marathon race report. Let’s go back a bit, shall we?

I can’t remember when I first learned of Grandma’s Marathon. It must have been while paging through a running magazine when I first started my love affair with endurance sports. I probably giggled at the name because “Grandma’s Marathon” sounds a bit funny. (Name history: Grandma’s Saloon & Grill in Duluth was the only business which would sponsor the marathon when it started in 1977. While other major sponsors have come on board, the name remains the same. There’s something quite poetic about that.) Then I heard a lot of good things about the race. The course runs the shore of Lake Superior which fits in with my love of the Great Lakes and developing interest in its history, particularly my new fascination with freighter ships. The race went on my bucket list.

So 2016, the 40th running of the marathon that starts in Two Harbors and ends in the Canal District of Duluth, Minnesota, became the year I committed and registered immediately since the race sells out quickly.

My training was solid. My runs were strong. My work at IMPACT had me ready physically and mentally. I decided to start the race with the pace group that lined up with my marathon PR. I did not train specifically for a PR but my long runs were lining up with that pace. I had doubts. I always do. It’s part of my process. As race day approached, I became more concerned about the humidity and warm temperatures. Maybe I should start further back. Maybe this wasn’t going to be my day. Maybe I was completely overthinking this.

My top goal was MAXIMUM FUN (hat tip to my friend Carolyn for introducing me to that phrase) and second goal was to finish the race. I had a few time-based goals to make it interesting, but I kept going back to my top two goals. I had done the work. Now was the time to trust my training.

Grandma's Saloon

The original sponsor.

I arrived in Duluth on Thursday — the first marathoner to check in at dorms at the College of St. Scholastica. I went to Canal Park to walk around, see the shipping canal and the fateful spot where the Mataafa hit the piers, got stuck and eventually sunk in 1905. (Yes, I read “So Terrible a Storm.”) Also on my list was hitting Grandma’s Saloon & Grill to pay homage to the race’s namesake and have its famous “marathon pasta” which, legend has it, was served to the first U.S. Olympic marathon team.

Friday was another easy day around Canal Park, including a tour of the William A. Irvin — the flagship freighter of U.S. Steel for 40 years. Did I totally geek out on the Great Lakes shipping history? You bet I did and capped it off with the official race pasta dinner, which brilliantly was held all day allowing you to time your meal to avoid a crush of runners.

Saturday’s race was a 7:45 a.m. start. That’s late for a summer-month marathon and certainly played into the heat factor of the day. But the point-to-point nature of the course means everyone has to take a shuttle to the start and I’m not sure logistically how to make it that much earlier without severe runner backlash. Of course Disney races often start at 5:30 a.m. with shuttles starting at 3:15 a.m. Personally, I like Duluth more than Disney but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on that one. And anyway, I digress.

On the bus ride to the starting line I had a great conversation with a woman about running and marathons and perspective. It was indicative of the rest of the day — conversations with random strangers that were fun and inspiring and made me smile. It is the thing which brings me back, again and again, to the running community. It’s not just the runners, but the volunteers, race officials and random spectators who make me smile, give me hope, lift me up when I’m down and celebrate with me when I’m happy.

I started the race felling good, running with Lori for the Clif Bar Pace Team. I chatted with other runners in our group, listened to conversations and generally kept myself in a good place. That became more difficult around Mile 11 when I had to work hard to catch back up to Lori through a water stop. “Don’t get negative,” she told me. My perceived rate of exertion was around a 6 creeping to a 7. Still, I stayed with Lori through the halfway mark. I hung with the group to about Mile 14. But Lori had told us several times if we started to feel lightheaded or if our motivation was waning, to take a walk break. I wasn’t lightheaded, but my body was not in a good place. I decided to pull back. By Mile 15 I saw the red flag and knew I had to group.

Those time goals I had? Forget ’em. I could try to push myself, but for what end? Why was I running in the first place?

  • To see new places.
  • To meet new people.
  • To run the Great Lakes.
  • To challenge myself.
  • To do something I love.

Once the race went under black flag conditions, I had a new mantra: Live to run another day. So I made a conscious decision to pull back, take frequent walk breaks and enjoy the last half of the race.

I talked with people. I sang along to songs at water stops. I skipped a bit, to raise my spirits and move my legs in a different way. I shoved ice under my hat and down the front of my bra. I clapped along to not one but two impromptu polka music stops along the route. The second one made me think of my late Grandmother who loved her polka music. Later that day, my mom told me she prayed to Gram to be with me during the race. Clearly she was.


Sometimes, you have to take a walk-break selfie to prove to yourself that you are not, in fact, going to die.

There were points in the second half of the race where it was sea of beaten down runners. Every water stop had a medical drop-out station, which sounded tempting to one woman near me. Her friend gave her a resounding “no.” I’d chat with people during walk breaks, many of whom said they could no longer run because every time they tried, their leg muscles seized up. Thank goodness that wasn’t my problem. My mind was willing. My body had different ideas. And I decided to listen to my body. And stop looking at my watch.

As I crossed the finish line, I heard “AMY!” It was my friend Kelly who drove to the race from Bemidji to cheer me at the end. It was so great to have a friendly face at the end for a sweaty hug, to sit with me while I started to feel normal again and, most importantly, buy me a huge chocolate milkshake.

In the final numbers I was off my training pace by about 15 minutes. The more I talked with people throughout the rest of the day, the more I heard stories about being 15 minutes behind their goal. A woman I talked with at the airport was 35 minutes off her pace. A combination of weather factors — heat, humidity, sun and the lack of a breeze/wind — made it a difficult day to run for a result.

But the marathon is more than just the final numbers. It’s the characters you meet along the way; the people who set out their sprinklers to cool off the runners; the person with the sign that said “I’m a total stranger but I’m still proud of you.” It’s seeing what demons come out during the 26.2 miles and how you decide to handle them.

I’m proud that I went out with my pace group and ran strong, challenging myself for the first 14 miles, not selling myself short before the race even started. I’m proud of being smart, of pulling back when the conditions were risky and deciding to enjoy the long run. I’m excited I got to share the finish line with my friend and inspired by the people I met in Duluth.

Overall, I highly recommend the race. The course would be a fantastic one to run in slightly cooler temperatures, especially with some cloud cover. It’s not totally flat, but very gently rolling and really very beautiful. The organization of the event was top-notch and the people were fantastic.


3 Comments on “Race Report: Grandma’s Marathon

  1. Good report, thank you for the reading material. I’m glad you got to experience Duluth for a few days before the race; it’s a city I love and where I went to college. Plenty of interesting things to see in and around the town.

    I had a similar experience during the race Saturday – sticking with my goal pace for 17 miles, reading my body and slowing just a bit from 17-20, and walking for the first time at mile 20.

    Your quote “My mind was willing. My body had different ideas. And I decided to listen to my body. And stop looking at my watch.” was exactly my situation. No cramping in my legs, they just wouldn’t run any more. After a minute or so of walking I could run again. And so it went.

    I missed my goal by 11 minutes, but still got a PR by 12 minutes at 3:46:02. I’ll call it a successful 2nd marathon, and left room for improvement in 2017!

    Congratulations on the finish! Maybe call it a “Black Flag PR.”

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