NeologisticsRunning → Grandmas

Becoming a Veteran

Grandma's Marathon, Duluth, MN, June 20, 1998

This is a report on the running of Grandma's Marathon, in Duluth, Minnesota, from a back-of-the-packer who trains as diligently and as meticulously as some sub-three-hour runners.


It's my philosophy that one ought not regard oneself as a "veteran" marathoner until he has run a race that is not a PR. First marathons are wonderful, and of course are always PRs. Second marathons give a runner experience, and are usually better than the first. But unless someone has experienced a tough race that sets him back a notch, he has not truly arrived in the world of the fully initiated.

By that standard, I have arrived.

The Readers Digest Version

At Grandma's Marathon on June 20, 1998, I crashed unexpectedly into the wall at 18.5 miles. Shortly afterward, I began experiencing cramps in my lower quadriceps. The net result was a finish that was a good thirty minutes behind what I was capable of, on a day that was perfect for road racing.


There were many things I did right to prepare for Grandma's. I had put in the miles, and tapered properly. My last very long run was 24 miles four weeks before the marathon. The next week I caught fire and ran a PR half marathon in training at the gym, bettering my previous time for the distance by a significant two minutes and twenty-seven seconds. The following Saturday, two weeks before the race, I ran an easy fifteen miles.

On Wednesday, June 10, ten days before the race, my right Achilles tendon flared up with very little advance notice, and stopped me from running after only a quarter mile. The next day I was in the podiatrist's office. He treated it with ultrasound, and I started icing, stretching, taking Advil, and cross training (swimming). Miraculously, in only three days it felt normal again. But because I didn't want to take any chances I didn't run another step until race day. That meant nine consecutive days without a run before a marathon, though I did some walking the week before.

We (my wife Suzy, daughter Cyra-Lea, and I) arrived in Duluth on Wednesday, June 17, giving us a few days to be tourists. We managed to get a room at the Hampton Inn, a hundred yards from the finish line. Despite the rain and cold, we enjoyed the city immensely, especially the Canal Park and lake shore areas. Everything of interest to us was accessible on foot.

The day before the race I did little walking. We enjoyed the Expo, took the bus tour of the course, sat and listened to the venerable guest speakers, and ate reasonable portions at the spaghetti dinner. With so many people present it seemed a little like feeding holiday dinner to the homeless, but the food was good.

At 6:00 P.M., we watched the 5K, standing in the pouring rain. We could have lived without that experience, but we had traveled a long way to be present for this event, and wanted to enjoy every part of it. So I stood on a rock with my Sony HandyCam during the downpour for the whole duration of the race, and videotaped all the lead runners coming in, meanwhile tapping the harmonic energy that was present, pumping up my enthusiasm for what was now only hours away.

For a whole week before the race I managed to eat right and sleep long and soundly every night. The night before the race I was in bed by 8:20, and up at 4:30 A.M. I slept like a rock. When I got up, my Achilles tendon felt fine. My head felt fine. My whole soul felt fine.

On paper I was ready for this race.

Race Day

At that hour there was no rain, and it had dried off sufficiently to be comfortable. The temperature was in the low 50's Fahrenheit at the start -- just right.

The ride to the start was pleasant. I sat next to a fellow who said he and his wife would be running their fourth marathon together. She had lost 120 pounds, and was the subject of a recent Prevention article, complete with photos, because of her success in changing to a healthy lifestyle.

The energy level present in a crowd of 7,000 people assembled for the purpose of running 26.2 miles is so vibrant it is impossible not to be carried along by it. The driving music on the sound system; the witty remarks of the starter; the endless scenes of people stretching and prancing about; the nervous small talk exchanged by persons making new acquaintances or encouraging friends, running partners, and loved ones, everyone wishing everyone else success; the volunteers pouring drinks and tending to the rapidly accumulating array of gear bags; people tearing to the portajohns to make last minute deposits; even the train full of spectators waiting beside the road, ready to follow the lead runners as closely as possible -- all interplay with one another to create a staccato symphony of excitement.

My optimistic choice of starting location was between the 4:00 and 4:30 signs. Ten minutes before the start, fellow Dead George Parrott found me and introduced himself, identifying me by the Buffalo Chips gear I was wearing. I am not from Sacramento, but joined the Chips for the fringe benefits. As a Dead Runner, Buffalo Chip, Penguin, and a member of Arizona Road Racers, and CrAZeD, I would need to wear a billboard to advertise all my affiliations. We made arrangements to eat with other Chips at Grandma's Saloon and Grill that evening.

The Race -- Part One

The starting signal finally sounded and the traditional cheer went up. We began moving almost immediately. The starting line at Grandma's is exceptionally well marked, with a large timing clock that indicated exactly 2:29 as I crossed the line. Beep! My Timex Ironman Triathalon 100 watch started rolling.

One half mile past the start there is a permanent billboard by the side of the highway, designed to entertain the runners every year. This is it.

Good News! Only 25.7 Miles to Go!
A Little Comic Relief

When I got off the bus I visited the portajohn, but one visit was insufficient to do the job; I knew it almost immediately. I struggled with the embarrassment of knowing I would have to make an unofficial potty stop, and soon. Between miles one and two I found a convenient tree-lined location and resolved the problem. That was the first time I ever did that. Believe me, it's no big deal. People with 26 miles to run have too much on their minds to stare at people who are urinating with their backs to them. I estimate I lost between forty-five seconds and a minute because of the stop. At last it was time to concentrate on business.

The course is basically flat with gently rolling hills, none really steep, either uphill or downhill. Lemon Drop hill at about mile twenty is the toughest uphill, but it is also quite short. The running surface from the beginning of the race until Duluth is all beautiful asphalt with little cant, and thereafter harder streets, with bricks in the downtown area.

Early in the Race

Early in the Race
(image made from photographer's proof)

At the beginning of the race there was heavy fog. Visibility over Lake Superior, when we could first see it, was less than two hundred yards. I didn't neglect to admire the beautiful scenery that makes the Grandma's course so special. Eventually the visibility increased, but it also rained starting from the time I was at mile twelve.

My race plan was probably ill-conceived. At this early point I had no inkling whatever that I was headed straight toward a major crash.

For the first and last time in my short racing career, I carried a water bottle with me. When I hit the water stop at mile three, I did not drink, but grabbed two waters and two XLR8s, dumped them into the bottle, and started to run again, trying to drink while running. My breathing had not kicked in comfortably as it usually does on a long run, so trying to suck that nauseating liquid, which tasted like weak bile, while gasping for air, proved to be an inefficient way to hydrate.

Because I still had half a bottle of liquid, I ran through the stop at mile five. Shortly thereafter I jettisoned the lukewarm remainder on the road. Then I repeated the whole pattern from mile seven through mile nine. By that time I realized that carrying a water bottle was a bad idea.

I believe I walked through the mile eleven station, but did not drink much. Then I drank at mile thirteen. After that my routine was erratic.

Running a marathon gives one ample opportunity to observe many other people in varying states of discomfort. There was one man with a prosthetic right leg below the knee, who probably beat me by at least an hour. He looked fast. There were many ad hoc teams, including a mother and two daughters. Some runners looked like they could never run to the end of the block, much less a marathon, but they beat me.

Some people blazed past me while carrying on a full-throated conversation and laughing heartily. Many persons shouted, "Hey, Chips!" and "How're things in Sacramento?" as they passed. I was obliged to confess that I am not from Sacramento, but was not inclined to explain why I was wearing Chips gear. Other runners groaned and heaved as if they were running for their lives from a pursuing bear, but they left me far behind.

On-course entertainment was strictly of the volunteer variety. There was one full high school band, one violin and guitar duo, one solo tubist, one smaller band, and lots of sound systems from ghetto blasters to full size event systems. From what I hear, it was nonetheless better than what the hapless Rock 'n' Roll Marathon participants received, despite heavy promotion to the contrary.

The Race - the Crisis

Until mile eighteen I ran reasonably well, though slower than I had hoped, and as noted, my breathing was a bit labored. Until that time I was on about a 4:32 pace. There was no sign that disaster was near.

Then at about 18.5 miles I suddenly found myself engaged in an unscheduled walk. Walking was not a deliberate act of will; it just happened. In training I almost never give in to an urge to walk at unplanned times. I walked for about a minute, then ran until mile nineteen where I dutifully consumed the disgusting Ultra-Gel they were serving, washing it down with more elixir of bile.

Shortly thereafter I needed to walk again. I decided to try the Galloway technique of running ten minutes and walking one. This lasted for 1.5 cycles. From this time on my performance steadily degenerated.

Walking in the Rain

Walking in the Rain

In the twentieth mile I began to experience severe cramps in my lower quadriceps, just above the knees, in both legs simultaneously. I have never cramped during a race before, and only mildly and very rarely during training. These cramps were very real. They continued to strike me any time I ran more than four or five minutes for the remainder of the race.

By mile twenty-two I was spending as much time walking as I was running. And so it went until the end.

At this point running no longer seemed fun. But I knew I would finish, even if I had to walk it. All that remained to be determined was how badly I would fall short of my hoped-for goal. Before the race it was inconceivable to me that I would ever finish a marathon in over five hours. Fortunately, that is still true, but not by much.

The ending phase of Grandma's involves coming around an underpass onto the final straightaway on Canal Street, where the crowds are solid and cheering enthusiastically. Every runner wants to make a good show at the end, knowing that there are photographers, friends, and family waiting for him. I was determined that no matter what, I would run that final two hundred yards or so without stopping.

However, when I got about seventy-five yards from the end, the cramps hit me again, hard, and I gasped and walked about three steps. I was immediately accosted from behind by an older woman who caught me by the arm and dragged me forward, saying, "Keep running! You can do it!" "I've got cramps!" "I don't care! Keep running! You can do it!" "Yes Ma'am!" So I ran it in, in pain and complete exhaustion.

My daughter was standing only a few more yards down the road, HandyCam in hand. The image she captured was of a wounded goose. The finish line photo does not show me smiling. Smiling was not on my agenda or even in my vocabulary at the time. As I crossed the line, the clock said 4:54:30. I did it. The official clock and my watch, which said 4:52:01, had remained exactly in sync, 2:29 apart. This is a full thirty minutes slower than what I believe I was capable of on that day.

At the Finish

At the Finish

After The Race

The chute seemed very long. Eventually I found the end, where someone hung an attractive medal around my neck, and flushed me out into the celebrating crowd. I was hungry. I wanted food!

There was plenty. I staggered to the food area and in less than fifteen minutes consumed two yogurts, a handful of Twix pieces, an ice cream cone, seven cookies, and a banana.

After that I picked up my finisher's T-shirt and my warmup gear, which I needed to wear because it was raining and cold and I was cooling down rapidly and starting to shiver. Then I went back and inhaled four more cookies.

Suzy and Cyra-Lea were nowhere to be found. I didn't know at that time whether they had even managed to get any images of me on tape or film. They did.

Because I was so cold, even though I desired to hang around and experience the party, which was still going strong, I was obliged to return to the hotel room just down the block. Suzy and Cyra-Lea had gone back not long before, having toughed it out in the rain for a couple of hours. They, too, had expected me to come by a little sooner.

After showering, I was able to watch finishers up to six hours from my hotel window, as I took notes for posterity.

At Grandma's, they postpone the awards ceremony until 3:00 P.M., to give people plenty of time to party, recover, and in some cases, shower and return. I wanted very much to go. But at 2:30 it was pouring even harder than the night before, and I was in a frame of mind to be easily swayed from any plan that involved the expenditure of energy. Instead, I curled up on the bed and slept for over an hour, missing the awards.


What went wrong? I am led to conclude that it was not any one particular thing that brought me down, but probably a combination of contributing factors.


Thus I have made my official entry into veterancy. I trained, I rested, I traveled, I ran, I messed up, I reflected, and I made plans to do better next time. Am I upset by the tough run? No. Am I discouraged? No way! I had a great time. I will do it again. And again, and again, until I no longer can. Because running is not about doing well at races. It is about life.