Chicory’s Grandma’s Marathon Race Report

I’m going to start this race report with two lists. First, a list of lessons I learned. We’re all here for the takeaways, right?

  1. Don’t trust people who tell you races are flat.
  2. Always wear sunscreen.
  3. Don’t part your hair down the middle for marathons.
  4. Don’t skip the warmup ever ever ever.
  5. Go ahead and pee in the bushes.

I always say it’s a bad idea to sign up for a race on the tail of another race, especially a bad one. But last fall, after a whole season of never feeling good (running or otherwise, which might’ve been iron, life stress or both or neither) I scrapped my fall marathon and running a half instead, and not particularly well. My husband was signed up for the full and ended up DNF’ing, so it was a rough day all-around. On my way home I was texting about my poor performance with one of my best friends. She replied that she was planning on Grandma’s, and over the next few days I did a little research. I knew a bunch of girls had run hella fast there last year, the weather should be okay, and it was net-downhill. Plus my friend was going and Mr. Chic doesn’t usually run a spring full. What the hell! I figured. Time to get myself sorted out, to get in some good training, take a fun girls’ trip, run a new race and see a new city. I signed up within a month.

Not only was the entry cheap-ish, but you get a jacket if you sign up early. A JACKET!

Which brings us to the second list, a list of things I did not know, that you may want to know before signing up:

  1. The race entry is cheap, but nothing else is.
  2. Hotels are expensive and sell out fast.
  3. Flights are pretty limited into Duluth.
  4. It’s a net-downhill course in the same way Boston is. The hilly way.

Training went okay. Not great, but okay. I ran a decent 5k, then a not-great 10k, then got the flu two weeks before my last tune-up, resulting in a pretty lackluster half. But right after that I strung together four consecutive 60+ mile weeks. Then I had a calf thing that required some rest. I missed a few workouts and quite frankly sandbagged a lot of the others. But I felt way more like myself than I had in the fall. Throughout the fall, I’d get in a great workout and then be tired for days, but this was different. Still, I was afraid to push it.

Before the race I told Coach I felt like I was in decent shape but I hated not having another tuneup race to give me a clearer sense of which shape that was. But it was out of my hands, and my perception of effort is pretty good so I put my trust in that.

After a quick Friday morning flight I met my friend D at MSP and we sat together for the short hop to Duluth. The lovely folks at the (new!) Hampton Inn in Superior, WI, were able to check us in early. Superior is about a 10 minute ride away, so we just Ubered around all weekend. At the expo where they gave us beer samples and allowed dogs, then grabbed lunch at Canal Street Brewing. Duluth has a lot of brewpubs!

We rested most of the afternoon, minus the 2 mile shakeout run I squeezed in to relieve my nerves. Later on we spectated the 5k and literally bumped into Carrie Tollefson, who went on to win for the third year, wearing her Brave Like Gabe tank.

We grabbed dinner at another brewpub then headed back to the hotel to meet our roommate and newly-made friend, Nicole. She actually got connected with us through the Salty Running Cleveland network, thanks to Ginger!

Race Morning

Grandma’s is like Boston in another way; it’s a point-to-point course that starts outside of town. I didn’t see much of Two Harbors but I suspect it is smaller than Hopkinton. The race provides shuttle buses from various points including Superior, so we woke up at 5:15 and were on the bus by 5:45. I forgot my headphones which was a minor bummer, but had everything I actually needed so it was okay.

On advice from the folks at Hammer Nutrition, I don’t eat anything within two hours of a race, but the start wasn’t until 7:45, which is 8:45 my time, which is basically lunchtime, so I drank some water and ate a Picky Bar.

The bus ride was long and windy and very bumpy, but we made it.

The start area … is very small. This is where my day started to unravel. I’ll admit, I’m spoiled. My last few marathons I’ve had the very real advantage of being in an elite/subelite field. Any time you can get this perk, you want it. In fact, I would now probably pay for a VIP area for non-elite starts if offered, because my routine is pretty dialed-in.

Not this day. We waited in line for a bathroom for 20 minutes, then went straight to getting ready because we needed to check our bags and get in the corral. The corral is a two-lane highway with no real shoulder area, so it’s hard to get in where you want. The sun was out and it didn’t look like it was going back in, so I put sunscreen on the areas I thought were going to get the most sun — the back of my arms and legs. Warmups off, racing shoes on, gels in pockets, Squirrel’s Nut Butter on. Drop bag. Got back in line for the bathroom because I really felt like I needed to pee. Like really! Not just nervous pee.

I waited in line until 7:40 and was still like 10 people away. FFS. I bailed, told my friend good luck, and found my way into the corral. Then I hopped a fence out of the corral, ran along the side, and hopped back in by the 3-hour pace group.

THEN they delayed the start. They never said why but there was a chunk of time in which I definitely could’ve peed.

And then the race started.

Miles 1-6

6:49, 6:41, 6:41, 6:41, 6:42, 6:46

9,000 runners on a two-lane highway makes for a tight start. I was hoping some of the women around the 3-hour pacer would want to pack up but nobody seems to and everyone is shuffling around. I settled in and felt great — relaxed, bouncy — except I really needed to pee.

It was really sunny, too, mid-50s but so sunny, bouncing off the lake sunny. Sweat was dripping off my braids in the first 2 miles. I took my first gel at 45 minutes, not long after crossing the 10k in 42-something.

Miles 7-13

6:36, 7:10, 6:58, 6:28, 7:01, 6:53, 7:26

I decided to stop and pee. I have never stopped to pee in a race ever, not even that time I did a 50k that took 6.5 hours. But I was in achy-bladder territory and not running well enough to justify peeing on myself.

For those wondering, “well enough to pee on myself” is defined for me as OTQ-pace or faster.

Most of the bathrooms had been on the left, so I drifted to that side and decided to stop at the next set. They came up about 100 meters before mile 8, so I swung off the road, running the whole way to the portajohn, having to grab the handle to stop as I slid through the gravel. 45 seconds later I passed the 8 mile marker hoping my pit stop would fix things up.

The next mile was a little slow as I got going again, but then the next was downhill and quick … unfortunately, maybe too quick. My right hamstring suddenly started to hurt. I tried for 2 miles to work through it and couldn’t.

At mile 10, you can start to see the bridge at the finish line. This is cool, except that it’s 16 miles away and you can see that. I came through the half in 1:29-something and knew it wasn’t going to be the day I hoped for. I knew with the hamstring I wasn’t going to pick it up over the second half.

Miles 14-20

7:05, 7:08, 7:01, 7:42, 7:16, 7:14, 7:50

Okay, I thought, so now what? Do I drop out? Because there were signs for where to drop out and they were pretty tempting. Do I slow down and wait for my friend, to catch up and run with her? She was looking to run around 3:20. Do I fight through it and run as hard as I can? Do I back off?

Each one of the options that popped into my head is a valid one, and if you’re ever in a situation where you have to consider them, there is no shame in any choice. Each of them has a situation in which it is the right option.

I took my second gel just past the halfway marker, at 90 minutes and I stopped to stretch my hamstring. It felt better but not great. I trudged along. I was very hot, even though I knew it wasn’t really that hot. Running in full sun always makes me feel like I am burning alive, and the sun was up at 5 a.m. that day. At this particular moment it was directly overhead, and there had been barely any shade on the course.

I was surprised by the number of people who were walking. I was surprised by the hills. I was surprised by how hot I felt. At mile 16, I was not sure I could finish the race. At mile 17, I took a walk break.

Then I saw a sign. A real, live, actual sign!

“It’s okay to struggle. It’s not okay to give up.”

A woman holding a sign that reads "welcome runnres!"
This is not THE sign, but its still a really good sign!

It was a Gabe quote. Such a pivotal spot to put it. I couldn’t give up. The Internet is small, and this race is also pretty small, but it’s still amazing that the person who put out this sign actually commented on my Instagram post after the race.

After the sign I ran 2 decent miles, 30 seconds off my goal pace but still okay. I knew I was going to finish and would do what was necessary to finish and not harm myself.

When I looked up, I noticed that the course was absolutely beautiful. I channeled my inner Deena Kastor and reminded myself that I was grateful to be out there, grateful for the beauty, for the girls’ trip, for so many things.

Somewhere in here I talked to SugarRuns, a conversation I started by saying, “I follow you on Instagram.” I took my last gel at 2 hours, somewhere around mile 20.

Conveniently someone placed a large hill at mile 20. I walked up the worst of it and was not the only one.

Miles 21-26

7:42, 7:19, 7:38, 7:35, 7:11, 7:16

Yeah yeah, I walked some more. I drank a lot of water and some Powerade. Water over my head. One of these slower miles is because I got water all over my glasses and asked a random stranger to wipe them dry because all of my clothing was soaked. THANK YOU RANDOM STRANGER! (Seriously, if you read this, message me — I owe you.)

Honestly I don’t remember much. I remember running through a pretty commercial strip, going back and forth with a couple other women and encouraging each other. I saw a woman walking and noticed she had an elite bib and encouraged her too.

We eventually wound our way downtown and ran by the restaurant where we ate dinner the night before. WE WERE CLOSE. Good grief. Marathons are so damn long.

Mile 25. We were in the heart of the city now, and there was lots of crowd and plenty of runners urging each other on. One more hill, an overpass, took us by the expo. They had to reroute this part of the course because of construction, so I knew it was a little weird but I was really hoping the finish was, well, not a mile away. Longest mile of my life. I could see the bridge (still) so every time we turned a corner I though we were there. Time and again, we were not.

But then. Finally.

Down the crowd-lined straightaway and across the line. 3:06:18. Honestly from halfway on I had no idea what my time would be.

Finisher's medal and bib

After the finish

I got my shirt and my beer ticket (both important), talked to another friend from Louisville, and got my checked bag. My plan was to change into dry clothes so I wouldn’t get cold, but in reality I sat on a curb and found my phone. I had a text from my coach so I called him and cried, then I called my husband and cried. Then I saw my friend D, who PR’d by NINE MINUTES and ran 3:19!!!! I ended up throwing dry clothes on over my wet, sweaty gear. D rang the PR frying pan and we headed to the beer tent. Then I froze for a while, eventually warmed up, and not long after that we hopped on the bus back to the hotel.

That’s pretty much the end of the story. We mostly hung around the hotel the rest of the day. I was sunburned on the top of my head, my face and my back, and basically everything hurt.

I’m disappointed but I also know that I had 14 marathons without a major blowup. So honestly, I was due. And D seems to always have the bad marathon luck—bad weather, course reroutes, whatever—so I am also telling myself that I took one for the team. 😉 I know it doesn’t work that way but it makes me feel better! It also feels good that I stuck it out and I still ran my fourth-fastest time.

So this one was a good learning experience. And beautiful scenery. And also a good reminder that marathons that don’t go as planned are still marathons run.

And now I’ve had a week of basically no exercise and one more coming up before we put some more structure back in the schedule and start planning for fall!

Has anyone else run Grandma’s? What did you think? Anyone looking at it for next year?

Started running in my early 20s and ended up running my first marathon 15 months later. Managed to break 3 hours in my 12th marathon. Pilates instructor passionate about the importance of your powerhouse in running and the mind/body connection. One husband, zero kids, mama to one Australian Shepherd.

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  1. I’ve run Grandma’s twice, and the key to keeping costs reasonable is to bypass the overpriced hotels and stay at the dorms. Sharing a 4 person suite, I paid under $200 for the weekend. The shuttles run from there so it’s very convenient.

    My favorite parts of the finish area were the changing tent and the strawberries.

    Grandma’s was fast and downhill when I ran it the first time, when I was in shape and set my PR. It seemed hilly when I ran it the next time, on a hot day (black flagged at 17, but not shut down) and out of race shape after an injury.

  2. I loved this post! Race day was the hottest 50 degree I’ve ever felt in my life – that sun!! Also, the peeing in the bushes thing is so true…I’d be hard pressed to think of a race where I didn’t pee behind a bush, tree, dumpster…etc. I agree with the other commenter about staying in the dorms – super cheap and also a lot more low key.

    As far as for what I thought of Grandma’s, I really like the event and the course. I ran it last year as well, and ironically in cloud cover and fog, the 2018 race day was the coldest 50 degrees I’ve ever felt in my life. People have told me that you can see the finish area from early on in the race, but I didn’t see it either year (a good thing!). I love the straight course but like you said, that final mile does seem really long with all of the turns…but at least you can lie to yourself “one more turn and I’ll see the line…okay, just one more…”.