Today I ran the Twin Cities Marathon, which starts in Minneapolis and finishes in St. Paul. This was my first marathon when I ran it in 1983, and it’s still one of my favorite races. This was the eleventh time I’ve done this race.
A couple things were different this year. In past years, runners could go inside the football stadium to stay warm before the start. The old stadium was torn down to build a new stadium on the same site, so we couldn’t go indoors this year. Another difference was the Green Line, a new light rail light linking downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. Runners could ride the Green Line for free on race day by showing their race bibs. That gave us an extra option for pre-race or post-race transportation.
I still had the remnants of a cold. While I still had some congestion and an occasional cough, I didn’t feel weak or tired like I did a week ago in the Quad Cities. I was optimistic that my cold wouldn’t slow me down much.
In contrast to all the hot races I did during the summer, this one was on the chilly side. The overnight low was 34 degrees and the forecast high was 50. I didn’t expect it to be any warmer than 45 by the time I finished.
I stuck to the pre-race transportation plan that I’ve used in the past. I parked my car at Sears, which is close to the finish in St. Paul. They charge $15 for event parking, but it’s convenient, and I didn’t have to worry about finding a parking spot. Sears is right next to the Best Western Kelly Inn, which is one of the St. Paul hotels where you could catch a free bus to the start.
Before boarding one of the buses, I took the time to go inside for a bathroom stop. I was still on a bus by 6:15. Taking a direct route, the distance to the start is less than 10 miles, so it didn’t take long to get there. We were dropped off at 6:35. With almost an hour and a half until the race, I was really missing the football stadium. When I wasn’t in line for a port-o-potty, I was looking for spots where I could find shelter from the wind. There are a surprising number of nooks around the downtown buildings.
I finally removed my warm-up layers and checked my gear bag about 20 minutes before the start. Each wave had one large start corral. There wasn’t much guidance about where to line up, and there wasn’t a 3:30 pace group, so I lined up about 50 feet behind the 3:25 group.
Because of the cool weather, I wore my cheetah print tights and hat. I also wore arm warmers with a similar print. I thought I might get warm in the late miles, but I definitely needed to dress warm at the start.
The Twin Cities Marathon bills itself as “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America.” I’ve run marathons that were more scenic, like Big Sur or Crater Lake, but none that are in cities. What sets this course apart from other urban marathons is that the scenery is non-stop. Most urban races have courses designed to take you past famous landmarks or through scenic neighborhoods. To get from one to another, they usually have to take you through other parts of town that are less attractive. Minneapolis and St. Paul have so many parkways that they’re able to connect them together without interruption. Once you leave downtown Minneapolis, it’s all tree-lined parkways until you’re within sight of the finish line.
I wish I could show you pictures of the course. I would have loved to carry a camera with me, but I wanted to break 3:30, and I wasn’t confident that I had much margin. When I took pictures during the Lake Tahoe Marathon a few weeks ago, I was stopping for an average of 10 seconds per photo. To take a dozen pictures today would have cost me about two minutes. If I knew I had two minutes to spare, I would have, but I wasn’t that confident. Instead, I’ll have to do my best to describe the course.
We started on the east side of downtown, which is mostly office buildings, After a few blocks, we ran underneath the Hennepin County Government Building, which spans two blocks. As we made the turn onto Hennepin Avenue, I felt a strong cold breeze. I wasn’t going to regret dressing warm.
Hennepin Avenue cuts through the shopping and entertainment district on the west side of downtown. As I passed the one mile sign, I saw that I ran the first mile in 7:50. That’s not too surprising, since I was still about 50 feet behind the 3:25 pace group. I was going out a little bit fast. To break 3:30, I only needed to average eight minutes per mile. In the next mile, I eased up a little, letting the 3:25 group pull away. I ran the second mile in 7:58, which was more reasonable.
As we left downtown, we ran through the Lowry Hill and Kenwood neighborhoods, eventually reaching Lake of the Isles. The 3:25 group had pulled away from me on a slightly uphill section, but I found myself right behind them again. It was hard to resist staying with them, but I used a water stop as an opportunity to slow down and let them get away from me again.
In miles three through seven, we ran past three lakes in southwest Minneapolis. Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet are so close together that you move quickly form one to the next. This is the most beautiful part of the course, and it’s also one of the best spectator spots.
Crowd support here is always good, but it’s even better when you’re wearing something distinctive. Wearing the cheetah gear, I always get extra cheers from the crowd. If you need that extra encouragement, or if you’re running your first marathon, I’d recommend wearing something that sets you apart from the other runners.
Along Lake Calhoun, I wasn’t feeling any wind. I was warming up, so I briefly considered taking off my gloves. Realizing it was still in the upper 30s, I resisted the temptation.
Even though I was gradually losing sight of the 3:25 group, I was still running a little faster than I planned. In the early miles, I was averaging about 7:50 per mile.
After Lake Harriet, we started running along the Minnehaha Parkway. This parkway follows Minnehaha Creek from the lakes to the Mississippi River. Here, I started feeling a cool breeze. I was never again tempted to remove my gloves. For the rest of the race, I felt like I was dressed just right.
The Minnehaha Parkway is the hilliest part of the course, but the hills are all short. They’re not tiring. If anything, they keep your legs fresh by causing you to use different muscles on the rolling terrain.
At 10 miles, I asked myself how I felt. In particular, I compared how I felt today to how I felt at the same point in the Quad Cities Marathon a week ago. I was on about the same pace, but I didn’t feel like I was working as hard. That was reassuring.
After about 11 miles, we briefly left the Minnehaha Parkway to run around Lake Nokomis. This is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Minneapolis. I’ve logged hundreds of miles running around this lake in the FANS 12 and 24 Hour Races.
Before leaving Lake Nokomis, we reached the halfway mark. I was only about 20 seconds slower than my halfway split at Quad Cities, but I felt fresher. At Quad Cities, I started to tire in the 14th mile. Today, I still felt like I was under control.
Throughout the race, I had several chants of “nice pants” and “cheetah pants.” Since I was also wearing a cheetah hat, I wondered why nobody commented on the hat. As if on cue, I heard, “nice hat.” The next time a spectator said “nice pants,” his wife immediately added “… and hat.” Little things like that can be a welcome distraction from the fatigue.
We returned to Minnehaha Parkway, which led us to the Mississippi River. Then we followed the West River Parkway for four miles. This section of the course overlaps with the course of the Minneapolis Marathon. I was cautious on this section. Although it’s easy to run fast here, I wanted to reach the 20 mile mark feeling fresh. From 20-23, the course is slightly uphill. I usually start to fade on that stretch and then struggle to the finish. Besides breaking 3:30, I also had a goal of running well in the late miles. To do that, I had to be able to run that uphill section without getting too tired.
My pace moderated slightly. Here, I was probably averaging about 7:55 per mile. That’s still faster than my goal pace. Just before the 19 mile mark, we went up a short ramp to get onto the Franklin Avenue Bridge across the Mississippi. There we had our best views of the river.
My 19th mile was 8:02. That was the first mile that was slower than eight minutes, but I knew the next mile would be slightly downhill. As we headed south on East River Road, my pace picked up again. The lowest elevation on the course is along East River Road, near the 20 mile mark. As I started this section, I was ahead of my goal pace by more than three minutes. I still felt good. I just needed to get through three slightly uphill miles without falling apart.
I ran mile 21 in 8:05. That was my slowest mile so far, but it wasn’t bad for an uphill mile. At this point, I again asked myself how I felt in comparison to the same point in the Quad Cities Marathon. In that race, I was already coming apart. Today, I was still under control. I was now slightly ahead of my pace in that race. I had a cushion of three minutes. I knew that would be more than enough.
Just past 21 miles, the East River Road makes a sharp bend to the left and climbs away from the river. I call this the St. Thomas hill, because it brings us up to the campus of St. Thomas University. This is a hill where people sometimes begin to walk. Nobody around me was walking. In fact, nobody seemed to be struggling. Everyone was running reasonably strong up the hill, so I just followed the crowd. By the end of the hill, a few runners slowed down, and I passed them.
After two quick turns, we were on Summit Avenue. Summit Avenue is a divided parkway that connects the river valley to downtown St. Paul. It’s the most handsome neighborhood in St. Paul, with several large mansions and churches. At first, it’s slightly uphill. You wouldn’t even notice the grade if it came earlier in the race, but it’s the continuation of a slightly uphill stretch that began on East River Road.
When I reached the 22 mile mark, I saw that I ran that mile in 8:15. That was my slowest mile so far, but it was also the toughest mile of the race. With only one slightly uphill mile to go, I picked up my effort. I was now passing most of the runners around me.
After a slight jog to the left, I could see the top of the hill. You might call it the summit of Summit Avenue. It comes right before the 23 mile mark. After that, the trend would be slightly downhill to the finish. I ran that mile in 8:06. That was acceptable. I was now curious to see if I could pick up my pace now that I was done running uphill.
Although the remaining miles were downhill, you have to be patient. It starts out flat. After a few flat blocks, we crossed the bridge over Ayd Mill Road. I don’t know all the streets in St. Paul, but I know this one. Because we go over it, it’s the only street where traffic can cross Summit Avenue during the race. After crossing the bridge, we started running downhill.
Halfway down Summit Avenue, there’s always an unofficial aid station with beer. I saw it midway through the 24th mile. I’ve never stopped there before, because I’m usually fighting for survival at this point in the race. Today, I was confident that I was going to have a strong finish, so I grabbed a cup. I’ve finally partaken in a race tradition that I had previously skipped.
A short time later, I saw another race tradition kept alive. In the early years of this race, there was always a bagpiper who would greet the runners as they entered St. Paul. While he’s no longer at the St. Paul city limits, I passed a bagpiper along Summit Avenue.
I ran the 24th mile in 7:48. Now that I was running a flat to downhill section, I had regained my pace from the early miles. That spurred me on to keep running well. I was passing almost everybody. Mile 25 is slightly downhill, but it briefly turns uphill at the end. As I saw that hill in front of me, I also saw a large digital clock at the top of the hill. That was the 25 mile mark.
I ran the 25th mile in 7:54 and started to pour it on. From here, it was all downhill. I started looking above the trees to my left, waiting for the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to come into view. When it did, I knew I was getting close to the finish. Next, the road bent to the left and turned more steeply downhill.
As I ran past the cathedral, I saw the dome of the state capitol in front of me. The finish line is right at the edge of the capitol grounds. I could now see the finish line, and I ran as hard as I could. I don’t usually check my watch at 26 miles, but I was curious to know how I ran from 23-26. Mile 26 was my fastest of the race. Over those three miles, I more than made up for the time I lost on the three uphill miles. I accomplished my goal of running well on Summit Avenue.
I ran the last two tenths in 90 seconds, finishing in 3:26:06. As it turns out, I would have had time to take a few pictures, but I didn’t know that in the morning. My time was fast enough to earn me my first qualifier for the 2016 Boston Marathon. I felt some relief after three straight weekends without a fast time.
After crossing the line, I received my finisher medal. Like last year’s medal, it had a fall leaves design.
Next, a race official took my picture and asked me if I was willing to answer a few questions. I think they noticed the cheetah gear. I did a short interview, which inevitably included the history of how I became “Cheetah Man.” That will be the subject of a future post.