On Saturday, August 9, 2014, I ran the Paavo Nurmi Marathon in Hurley, WI. Hurley is on the Wisconsin/Michigan border, about 20 miles from Lake Superior. I also did this race in 2013. I heard recently that there are now over 30 marathons in Wisconsin. This one is the oldest. I discovered last year that many veteran runners still do this one every year. I came back expecting to see some old friends.
Like my last two races, this one was a within a reasonable driving distance from home. I have to take advantage of these opportunities during the summer months. Where I live, racing in the winter means flying to faraway places.
I left Friday morning, arriving in the mid-afternoon. On my way, I took a short detour to drive part of the route. I’m glad I took this opportunity to get reacquainted with the course. I remembered some tough hills in the second half, but I was reminded that there are also a number of hills in the first half.
I stayed at Days Inn, which was the host hotel for the race. After checking in, I drove to Hurley Elementary School to pick up my race packet. Later, I returned to the school for the pre-race pasta dinner. The dinner isn't anything fancy, but it's a good chance to catch up with old friends. I made a point of eating on the early side, so I could get downtown in time for the traditional torch lighting ceremony.
This area is called Little Finland, because it was settled by Finnish immigrants. The race is named for the great distance runner, Paavo Nurmi. The “Flying Finn” represented Finland in the 1920, 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games, winning a total of nine medals.
Starting at 7:00, we were entertained by a polka band and Finnish dancers. After remarks by the race committee, presentation of the colors and a prayer, we waited for a young team of runners to carry a torch into town. Then they lit what looked like an Olympic cauldron.
Running the same race two years in a row invites comparisons. Last year, I was in good shape, but I was also recovering from a mild hamstring pull. This is a hilly course, and I had to be careful not to push too hard on the hills. My goal was to finish in 3:30. I just managed to do that, finishing in 3:28:58. This year, I'm healthy, and I'm running more confidently on hills. I'm also carrying some extra weight, so I have to work harder to run the same times. I once again set 3:30 as my goal.
The course is point-to-point, starting in Upson and finishing in Hurley. It’s run mostly on two-lane roads through the forest, going through a few small towns along the way. There were buses to the start that left Days Inn, starting at 6:00. You could also catch a bus from the finish line in downtown Hurley. Catching the bus from Days Inn was more convenient and allowed me to set my alarm a little later.
Friday night, I couldn’t get to sleep. I often have trouble sleeping in hotels, but usually there’s a reason. This time, the room temperature was right, the bed and pillow were comfortable, and it was reasonably quite. I was relaxed and comfortable. I should have slept well, but I just couldn’t get to sleep. I assumed I would fall asleep eventually, but I never did. A few minutes before 5:00, I got up.
I’ve had good races after sleeping for only an hour or two. In fact, my marathon PR was set after only two hours sleep. I had slept well the previous night, so I didn’t dwell on it. Once I got up, I focused on getting ready for the race.
Days Inn has a continental breakfast. On race morning, they had it set up by 5:00. I had a small pastry, and fixed myself a cup of tea. I probably should’ve had more to drink, but I didn’t know if there would be long bathroom lines at the start of the race. I usually don’t drink much before a race. I usually do fine just drinking enough after the race starts.
This race usually has good weather, but it’s a summer race, so it has the potential to be hot. Last year, heat wasn't a factor. This year it was. It was about 60 degrees at the start, and it was going to warm into the upper 70s. That's on the hot side, but I cope reasonably well with temperatures in that range. I was optimistic that I could still run a good race.
My plan was to run eight minute miles for the first half of the race. In the second half, I would run whatever pace I could manage. That plan worked well three weeks ago at the University of Okoboji Marathon.
I was on the first bus from Days Inn. We arrived at the start at 6:30. I found a place to sit and started talking to a few of the other runners. At 7:00, I noticed there still wasn’t any line for the bathrooms, so I decided to use them while I still could. My timing was perfect. When I was done, lines were beginning to form. More buses had arrived, and there were now hundreds of runners in the start area. About 15 minutes before the race, I removed my warm-ups and checked my gear bag.
I knew the first two miles were mostly downhill. Last year, I went out a little fast. This year, I started at a more relaxed pace. I was surprised how many runners were out in front of me. Then I noticed that most of the runners at the front were on 5-person relay teams.
Despite going out at a pace that felt easy, my first mile was 7:06. That seemed fast, even for a downhill mile. I did my best to ease up, even though it was still downhill. By the end of the second mile, the road was turning uphill. My second mile was 7:37. That seemed reasonable for a mostly downhill mile.
After that, the road was rolling. My next few miles were each a little bit slower than eight minutes. I assumed they were more uphill than downhill, but it was hard to tell. I realized that it would take several miles before I could tell if I was running the right pace.
After settling into my pace, I have a tendency to stay with the runners around me. Because so many of the runners near me were on relay teams, I had to be careful. By the time I was in my fifth mile, they were already in the last mile of their relay leg. Some were charging, while others were fading. I could tell which runners were on relay teams, because they had timing chips strapped to their ankles. The rest of us had our chips on the back of our race bibs. I did my best to ignore the relay runners.
Shortly after the first relay exchange point, I was passed by a relay runner wearing a yellow shirt with the arms cut off. It was hanging loosely over her other clothes and had a big “2” drawn on it. Earlier, I had passed a relay runner with a similar shirt, except hers had a “1.” I assumed they were on the same team. At one time or another, I would either pass or be passed by each member of that team.
At the six mile mark, I reached the second aid station. They were spaced three miles apart. That seemed sparse for a hot race. I was already feeling thirsty, so I drank two cups at that aid station. Later, the aid stations would be closer together, but for now, I wasn’t getting enough fluid.
In the early miles, we were surrounded by tall pine trees that shaded most of the road. Running in the shade, the air felt crisp and cool, even though it was in the 60s. Later, the road turned, and we were running toward the sun. We no longer had shade, and it felt 10 degrees warmer. Before long, I was noticing quite a bit of sweat on my forehead.
At 10 miles, I passed the second relay exchange point. By now, we were running through a series of small towns – first Iron Belt, then Pence, then Montreal, and finally Gile. There was more spectator support now. Earlier, we only saw spectators at relay exchange points and aid stations.
The halfway point was in Gile. We left the highway to run through the town center. In the town square, there’s a large brass bell. As runners go by, they ring the bell. I reached the halfway point in 1:43:20. I was about a minute and a half too fast, but it was tough to gauge my pace, since there weren’t any flat miles. Some miles were fast, and some were slow, depending on whether they were uphill or downhill.
Leaving Gile, there was a short, but tiring hill. I felt like I was slowing down noticeably, but I recovered later. When I got back to the highway, I saw the 14 mile mark. I was surprised to see that that mile was actually a few seconds fast. I was no longer trying to set the right pace. With more than half the race behind me, I was trying to finish strong.
I was noticeably hot now. There were a few strands of tall trees that cast shadows over the road. When I ran through the shade, I felt cooler, if only for a few seconds. When I was back in the sun, I immediately felt hot again.
Shortly after the 14 mile mark, I saw the city limit sign for Hurley. We would run through Hurley for about a mile before turning south and beginning an 11-mile loop. I saw another relay runner with a cutaway yellow shirt. I couldn’t make out the “3” on the back until I was getting close to passing her.
Just past 15 miles, the course made a right turn and headed back out of town. From driving the course, I realized that we were almost in sight of the finish before turning. The next five miles would into the wind. Because of the heat, that was a good thing. The cooling effect of the wind was something I desperately needed.
Right away, there was a big hill. It took something out of me, but I knew it would be followed by a big downhill. I was able to recover on the downhill – this time. As I was running downhill, I heard a runner approaching rapidly on the grass. I moved over to make room on the road. I was a relay runner … in a yellow cutaway shirt … with a big “4” on the back. She evidently preferred to run on the grass. She was running away from me on the downhill.
At 16 miles, I noticed that I had gained a minute. I’m not sure if there was a misplaced mile marker or if I misread my watch, but it didn’t seem possible that I could have run a seven minute mile on a mile that had a big hill. My time at 17 miles was consistent. I was now almost three minutes ahead of my goal pace. I was on a long flat section now, which finally gave me a chance to check my pace when I wasn’t running up or down a hill.
I noticed that yellow relay runner #4 was no longer pulling away from me. When she ran by me, it was near the beginning of her relay leg. Perhaps she started fast, but was slowing down. I challenged myself to close the gap. Racing someone on a relay team probably wasn’t smart, but it was a mental game I could play to lift my effort.
At 19 miles, the course passed between two lakes. With water on both sides, the wind felt nice and cool. I briefly felt comfortable, but it wouldn’t last. It was the last time during the race that I would be even remotely comfortable.
Just before the last relay exchange point, I passed yellow relay runner #4. Then I heard someone coming up alongside me. I assumed it was another relay runner, but it wasn’t. As we rounded a corner, she passed me like I was standing still. It was a woman I remembered seeing in the early miles. It was the first time since mile two or three that I was passed by someone who was doing the marathon. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Just after the relay exchange, another runner passed me. I expected to see another yellow shirt. It was another relay runner, but she wasn’t wearing yellow. She had to be the teammate of the four runners with yellow shirts, but she was wearing regular running clothes. She probably decided the extra layer would be too hot.
There was an aid station just past the relay exchange. With everything else going on, I forgot to check my watch. The relay exchange was also the 20 mile mark. I could tell I was slowing down, but I would have to wait another mile to quantify the damage.
It was also at this point that the course abruptly turned northward. Now the headwind became a tailwind. That wasn’t good news. When you’re hot, having the wind at your back means you don’t feel any cooling effect from the breeze. The last six miles were going to be even hotter. It was also the beginning of the toughest part of the course. It was a seemingly non-stop roller coaster of short steep hills.
I felt myself slowing down on each hill. I wasn’t able to regain my pace on the downhills. At 19 miles, I had a cushion of roughly 2:30. By the time I reached 21, my cushion had eroded to 1:30. Those two miles had been roughly 8:30 each. With five miles to go, that wouldn’t hold up.
By now, there were aid stations every mile. The aid station at 21 miles had bags of ice, but I didn’t notice until it was too late to grab one. Putting ice in my hat would have helped. For the rest of the race I was drinking both water and Gatorade. Sometimes I also poured water over my head. There was also an unofficial aid station with water and beer. When I was asked if I wanted water or beer, I said, “Regrettably, I’m going to have to drink water.”
Before the 22 mile mark, I made the turn onto Highway 2. That lifted my spirits, because I would be on this highway all the way into Hurley. I remembered this section having one long gradual hill, but until then it would be flat. I had renewed hope that I could dig deep and hold the pace.
My hopes were dashed when I saw my time at 22 miles. I ran that mile in 8:37, and my cushion was now less than a minute. I knew 3:30 wasn’t going to happen, but I battled on. Surprisingly, I ran the next mile just a hair faster. I still had a 14 second cushion, but that wouldn’t survive another mile, much less three.
The next aid station had ice cubes, and I put some in my hat. That helped, but it was too little, too late. It’s just as well that I forgot to check my watch at mile 24. I wouldn’t have wanted to know the bad news. With roughly a mile to go, I started the last bad hill. Last year, I was fighting for time. This year, I was just fighting to finish.
I battled through the last mile to reach downtown Hurley. With encouragement from the finish line announcer and the crowd, I picked up my effort. I crossed the line in 3:39:32. In the last 3.2 miles, I gave up 10 minutes. I was disappointed with my time, but I was relieved to be done.
Finish line food included beer and Mojakka. Mojakka is a Finnish stew. I recently stopped eating meat, but I made an exception for the Mojakka. It’s a tradition that’s part of the overall race experience.
Iron Nugget, a bar & grill next to the finish line, is one of the sponsors of the race. Finisher medals, T-shirts and gear bags were available inside. I didn’t need to wear my warm-ups. It was now 77 degrees, and I was comfortable walking back to Days Inn in my running clothes.
All afternoon I was thirsty. I drank what I could, but it barely took the edge off my thirst. It was obvious that I got dehydrated during the race. I let myself fall behind in the early miles, when the aid stations were sparse. After that, I couldn’t catch up. I usually cope better with heat, so I’m sure dehydration was a factor in my struggles.
I eventually returned to Iron Nugget for dinner. I often celebrate a marathon finish with post-race pizza. This time, I opted for a veggie pizza.
The next morning I had the opportunity to talk to a runner from Wisconsin who’s done this race many times. At one time, they had over 1,100 runners in the marathon. It was one of the biggest marathons in the Midwest. Now, despite the addition of a half marathon, a relay and a kids’ run, there are fewer than 700 total entrants. Many veteran runners keep returning to this race, but runners who are new to the sport don’t seem to be discovering it. That’s a shame. It’s a community race that hasn’t lost its small town charm.