This is a blog post I’ve been waiting a long time to write — my first full marathon recap! I ran Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN on Saturday, June 22. A lot can happen over the course of 26.2 miles, so I’ve got plenty to share. Let’s dive in:
The week leading up to the race
About 10 days before the marathon, I started having pain in the same spot as my stress fracture from last fall (my right tibia). I made the decision to skip my final week of runs and rest my leg for the race. I did my best to manage the anxiety that developed along with the leg pain. Re-reading Deena Kastor’s “Let Your Mind Run” helped quite a bit and helped keep my spirits and excitement high. Since I couldn’t really control my knee pain, I tried to focus on things I could control: icing/resting my leg, getting lots of sleep, hydrating and fueling well, and packing/making sure I had everything I needed for race day (spoiler alert: I still forgot some pretty important stuff).
The day before the race
My family few into Minneapolis the day before the race, which was so exciting and wonderful. We went out to breakfast and played a few games of Bananagrams (a family favorite) before I headed up to Duluth around 12:30 pm. Duluth is about 2.5 hours away from the Twin Cities but I got stuck in terrible traffic on my way up, so it took me closer to 3.5 hours. When I finally pulled up to our hotel (The Edgewater), I was feeling super exhausted from being in the car for so long, plus getting up really early to finish cleaning my casa before my family arrived. I checked into our room and then headed straight to the Expo, which was held at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Even though it was one of the marathon experiences I was most excited for, I didn’t spend a ton of time at the expo. I pretty much got my bib, took a quick lap around to look at the booths, and then headed out. It was *super* packed and I felt overwhelmed and overstimulated almost immediately. In the future, I think I’ll try to go to race expos during off times, so things are less crowded and I can spend more time walking around.
Next, I headed to the Michelina’s All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Dinner, which is also held at the DECC. For $14, you get unlimited spaghetti, salad, bread and cookies. You also get a ticket for one little Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I had three plates of spaghetti because the portions were pretty small and I wanted to carb up for the race. The food was delicious and I enjoyed talking to different runners while I ate.
I headed back to the hotel after dinner. I got everything ready for the morning and took my much-anticipated #FlatRunner photo for Instagram. It was around this time that I realized I had forgotten a few crucial things at home: my wireless headphones, as well as extra hair ties and bobby pins. I wasn’t too worried about not having my headphones, because I knew there would be plenty to keep me distracted during the race. I was more nervous about not having extra hair ties and bobby pins. I had one hair tie with me, but I was planning on using two because I like to run with my hair in a braided pony tail. I decided I would just run with a regular pony tail. I was a bit more nervous about not having any bobby pins, because I needed to pin my bangs back. Luckily, I found a few barrettes and pins in the bottom of my make-up bag — I had less than I was planning/hoping, but it was better than nothing and I decided to just make do with what I had.
By 7:30, I was completely exhausted and ready for bed. I called my husband to say goodnight and then fell into a deep sleep.
I woke up at 4:30 am on race day. After getting dressed and eating breakfast (whole wheat bagel with peanut butter and strawberries), I went up to the 4th floor of the hotel to grab my complimentary runner’s snack bag. I really liked that The Edgewater provided these to all runners — each bag had a bottle of water, a banana, an apple and a granola bar. You could also grab a bagel and coffee, but I skipped those since I’d already had both in my room. I then headed outside, where three buses were waiting to take runners to the starting line in Two Harbors, MN. I was one of the last runners to get on the first bus, so we left almost as soon as I boarded at 5:40 a.m. It was about a 15 minute ride to the starting line. I listened to music on the way and tried to soak in all the emotions I was feeling (excitement, fear, pride, anxiety, and more).
Our bus must have been one of the first to arrive in Two Harbors, because there were very few runners there. I got pretty choked up when I finally saw the starting line, thinking to myself “Oh my God, you really made it, you’re about to run your first marathon.” This was one of my favorite moments of the day. Next, I found a grassy spot to sit and relax. It was around 50 degrees and the sky was bright and cloudless — perfect racing weather, I thought to myself. Over the next hour and a half, I stretched, used a port-a-potty, applied sunscreen, drank my UCan powder mixed with water, and ate the banana and granola bar from the hotel. I also talked to my husband and aunt on the phone. Weirdly enough, since I’m such an emotional person, I felt totally calm and serene during this period.
At 7:15, about 30 minutes before the start of the race, I decided to use the bathroom one last time because I have a notoriously small bladder and had drank quite a bit that morning. The lines for the port-a-potties were super long and moved very slowly. As the minutes ticked by, it felt like our line was barely inching forward. I tried to keep calm as the DJ announced we had 20 minutes until the start of the race. Then 10 minutes. Then 5 minutes. I was still in line and my anxiety was starting to spike. Finally, it was my turn — I went as fast as I could and then ran to the other end of the runners’ holding area to check my gear bag. I got into the runner’s shoot with just a few minutes to spare (enough time to ask a fellow runner to take a picture of me #priorities).
And then before I knew it, we were off. The crowd thinned out pretty quickly and I had plenty of room to find my pace. I was going for a 12:30 pace for the first half, and then hoped to speed up to 12 min/mile for the last half. I went out a bit fast at a 12 minute/mile pace and made a concerted effort to slow myself down at mile 2. Very shortly before we hit mile 1, I realized that I had to pee again (remember that small bladder I mentioned earlier?). There were 4 port-a-potties at each mile marker, but the lines were super long at all of them. I made it to mile 3 before I knew I had to stop. I’m not exactly sure how long I waited in line, but it was at least 10 minutes, maybe even 15. My anxiety was really high while I was waiting, but I tried to tell myself that it was early in the race and I would make up the time.
After again peeing as fast as I could, I got back on the course. I realized I was literally in the back of the pack of the marathon — I could see the very last runners and they weren’t far behind me. I focused on passing people in front of me, one at a time. This kept me pretty occupied and I had rejoined folks running my pace by about mile 7.
The first half of the race was just lovely. Running alongside Lake Superior was unbelievably beautiful and calming. The sun was still low, so it was cool and we had a nice tailwind. I remember feeling surprised that the miles were flying by so fast. According to my FitBit watch, I was running an average pace of 12:25 minutes/mile. To my surprise and delight, my right leg was giving me no trouble at all. I was having slight pain in my hip flexors, but it wasn’t too bad. Two things that were really bothering me: my pony tail and my bib. My pony tail kept getting stuck to the sweat on my back, which felt really gross. I was constantly peeling it off my skin. And for some inexplicable reason, I hadn’t pinned all four corners of my bib to my shirt that morning; the two bottom corners were unpinned, so the bib kept flying up and getting stuck. These two things were driving me crazy; at the 12-mile mark, I finally decided to do something.
I headed to the medical tent first and asked if they had any extra safety pins. They said no. I was about to keep running, when a fellow runner who was sitting in the medical tent stood up and offered me his. He explained that he had just decided to drop-out of the race, so he wouldn’t be needing them. “You get those pins across the finish line,” he told me as he passed along the pins. “I will, I promise!” I shouted back, as I kept on running. This was another one of my favorite race moments.
I stopped at one of the water stations just past the medical tent and grabbed a cup of water from a pre-teen volunteer. She had an extra hair tie around her wrist. “I know this is so weird,” I said to her, “but is there any way I could have that hair tie? My pony tail is driving me crazy.” She looked a bit surprised but immediately said “of course!” and handed it to me. “You are an ANGEL,” I told her, as I tied my pony tail into a braid. I headed into mile 12 with a fully-pinned bib and neatly braided hair. This aid station had been so good to me. I ran on with renewed energy.
I passed the half-way mark at 2:52. I didn’t know my exact time as I crossed but I was under the impression that my pace was much faster (my FitBit watch was showing consistent mile splits under 12 minutes). I’m thinking that the long port-a-potty stop is what messed up my own pace tracking so much. But at the time, I was feeling really strong and couldn’t believe I was already half way done!
Over the next 10 miles, I just enjoyed taking in the scenery, interacting with the spectators and snacking on the food provided at unofficial aid stations (I had strawberries, a banana, orange slices, a Twizzler and bacon). In the second half of the race, my hip flexors really started to tighten up and I had some pain, but it wasn’t unbearable. I grabbed some Ibuprofen at another unofficial aid station around mile 20 and that really helped.
Around mile 21, I started to slow down and take walk breaks. My legs were really tired and felt heavy, and my shoulders were starting to ache (I think because my form fell apart and I was slouching forward). Right around mile 23 is a hill called Lemon Drop Hill that’s pretty notorious in the race — not because it’s a monster hill (it’s actually pretty small) but because of where it’s placed in the course. One of my goals for the day was to not walk Lemon Drop — I really wanted to charge up it, regardless of how I was feeling. And that’s exactly what I did! I made it to the top and my legs felt more tired than ever; I was starting to feel mentally weary too, thinking “how am I supposed to run for another 5K?”
Lucky for me, my family was waiting for me about a quarter mile past the top of Lemon Drop — it was perfect timing, because I was really starting to fade. Seeing them jump up and down when I came towards them, cheering like crazy and crying happy tears, will hands-down forever be one of the happiest moments of my life. I gave some quick, sweaty hugs and then continued on, feeling much lighter physically and mentally.
The final 5K were painful, but I tried to just keep my head down and keep moving forward. Around mile 25, a female runner in front of me tripped and went down hard. A few of us stopped to help her; she was clearly in an incredible amount of pain (either from hitting the pavement or maybe from a cramp?) and was yelling “don’t touch me!!” I didn’t know what to do and looked at the other runners helplessly; luckily, a medic arrived just a few seconds later on a bike and was able to help her out. So I continued running, with a renewed gratitude that I had made it so far in the race without getting injured and sending that runner lots of love and good vibes.
And then before I knew it, I was at the finish! I crossed the finish line in 5 hours, 48 minutes and 13 seconds with my arms up in the air. I just kept thinking “oh my God, you did it, you ran a marathon!!” and also “I’m SO glad I don’t have to run anymore.” A volunteer placed the medal around my neck and I felt tears well up in my eyes. This was another of the best moments of my life.
After the race
My family was planning to catch a shuttle from our hotel at mile 23 to the finish line to see me cross, but they unfortunately weren’t able to make it in time because the shuttle took forever. I realized quickly they weren’t at the finish line, because I knew I would have heard them cheering. I really wasn’t upset or disappointed they weren’t there; to be honest, the finish felt a bit anticlimactic and seeing them at mile 23 was way better.
After getting my medal, heat blanket, finisher’s shirt and a bottle of water, I called my husband to figure out where they were. They were on their way to the finish line, so we agreed to walk towards each other and meet in the middle. I stopped quickly to change into a sweatshirt and my recovery sandals, and then headed towards them. We found each other pretty easily and exchanged lots of hugs and took some pictures. Then an Uber picked us up and took us back to the hotel.
I took a SUPER hot bath and changed into my post-race outfit: black leggings, compression leg sleeves and a Sarah Marie Design Studio shirt I had bought just for the occasion (it says “Marathoner” on it :D). We hung out in the hotel for about an hour and I rested my legs (and ate Twizzlers) until our dinner reservation at 4:30. We headed out to Grandma’s Saloon to eat and I enjoyed a post-race beer and big plate of pasta.
We were back in our hotel room by 7 and I was asleep by 7:30. I slept for 12 hours and woke up feeling rested but pretty sore (especially in my hips, knees, ankles and heels). I also realized I had a wicked sunburn from the race — but all things considered, I’m pretty lucky that’s the worst thing that happened to me during the marathon.
We then headed back to Minneapolis and grabbed brunch near our house. I took a 4-hour nap when we got home — I could tell my body really needed sleep and I was happy to give it all it wanted. I also talked on the phone with my other family in West Virginia and lots of friends across the country — it seemed like everyone I knew wanted to hear about the race and congratulate me, which I was just fine with 🙂
All in all, it was an amazing first marathon experience. The weather was great, the crowd support was wonderful, I felt pretty good the whole race, and I had my family there to cheer me on. I was a bit disappointed with my final time (like I mentioned earlier, I thought my pace was about a minute faster than what it ended up being) because I felt like I had run better than that, but I’m still incredibly proud of myself and so excited to start training for my fall race, the Mankato Marathon.