This morning, I race-walked the Ely Marathon. This was one of only two remaining marathons in Minnesota that I had never done. Ely is in northeastern Minnesota, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Two weeks ago, I started to add running back into my training. At this point, though, I’m still not ready to run a whole marathon. For this race, I decided to race-walk the whole thing.
I drove to Ely on Friday. The drive took about four and a half hours. After arriving, I checked into a mom and pop hotel called the Adventure Inn. Then I went to Vermillion Community College to pick up my race packet.
Ely is a resort area. It’s in a heavily forest region with hundreds of lakes. Most people come here for boating, fishing, or canoeing. People from the southern half of the state refer to this region as “up north.” After packet pickup, I explored the town. There are several gift shops with north woods themed merchandise.
When I got up this morning, the temperature was around 70 degrees. It wouldn’t change much during the race. The big question was whether it would rain. It wasn’t raining when I got up, but there was about a 50 percent chance of showers or thunderstorms throughout the morning.
The course was point-to-point, starting on the north side of Burntside Lake and finishing in Ely. I parked at Memorial High School, where buses where loading to take us to the start. When I left the hotel, it was raining. I wore shorts and a singlet, because it was still 70 degrees, even if it was raining. I kept gloves and a plastic rain poncho in a fanny pack, just in case we got a downpour during the race. I also wore a Tyvek jacket to keep warm while I was waiting for the race to start.
Before getting on a bus, I asked a volunteer if there were bathrooms nearby. He said there were port-o-potties on the other side of the park, but if I just needed to do “manly stuff,” I could go behind the building. Then he added, “You’re in Ely now.”
I boarded a bus and we got on our way. We made a stop at the Grand Ely Lodge to pick up runners who were staying there. While we were on our way to Burntside Lake, the rain stopped. As we drove around the lake, the sun was just rising, giving us a nice view over the lake. We got dropped off around 7:00 for a 7:30 start.
The starting line was near a shelter that was being used by the volunteers. I think it was part of a YMCA camp. They had a table with water and Gatorade. They also had a campfire. They provided marshmallows and roasting sticks, so I roasted a marshmallow as a pre-race snack.
Near the start, they had five port-o-potties. This was a small race, so that was sufficient. Even after all the buses unloaded, it only took 15 minutes to get through the line.
Before the race started, I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. They had a gear check, but I didn’t want to bother with that for just my jacket. I knew we might be finishing in a thunderstorm, in which case I would want to head straight for my car after finishing the race.
The first mile of the race was on a dirt road. The soil was sandy, so the rain we got earlier was already soaking in. The road was wet, but not muddy.
They had pacers for numerous times, going up to 5:30. You don’t expect to see that at a small race. As I started walking, the 5:30 pacer came alongside me and asked me how fast I usually walk a marathon. I told him I’ve only walked a few, but my last two were in the low 5:20s. I said this one was going to be low key. Then I said, “Well … we’ll see.” I didn’t honestly know how fast I would start, and sometimes I get ambitious.
Before long, I pulled away from the 5:30 group and found myself just behind the 5:00 group. I wondered if the 5:00 pacer was starting a little slow. 5:00 is a little faster than 11:30 per mile. I couldn’t believe I was on that pace. Then I reached the first mile marker in 11:29.
In the first mile, I started to feel a few drops. At first I thought they were falling from tree branches. Then I realized it was raining. It only lasted a few minutes, but rain would come back later.
I was relieved when we got on pavement in the second mile. After my fast start, I eased up a bit. The next several miles were all about 12 minutes. That was still a fast pace, but it was more reasonable.
The early miles were hilly. I had been told at packet pickup that this was a challenging course. They weren’t kidding. It seems like I don’t speed up and slow down as much as the runners do. On the first particularly steep hill, I was keeping pace with the runners. I even passed one. At this point, I still wasn’t far behind the 5:00 pacer.
Going downhill, the runners would pull away from me. After that first big hill, the 5:00 pacer started moving farther and farther ahead of me. By the end of four miles, I sometimes lost sight of her when she went around a bend in the road.
Over the next few miles I passed a few of the runners, but gradually lost sight of the 5:00 pacer. Then I was by myself. For several miles, I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. I occasionally heard voices from behind me. There were runners back there, but I never saw them.
It started raining again. It was a light rain, so it didn’t really bother me. For now, it was keeping me from getting too hot.
There was a long steep hill just before the seven mile mark. This one slowed me down and took something out of me. That mile took me 12:51, which was by far my slowest. After that, the course leveled off. I was able to recover and get back into a good rhythm. I resumed walking 12 minute miles.
Between nine and ten miles, we passed the starting line for the half marathon. Obviously, we wouldn’t be following the same route. At some point, we needed to run an extra three and a half miles.
After it had been raining for a while, puddles began to form. We were running on the shoulder of a highway, so there wasn’t always a lot of room to go around the puddles. I had mixed feelings about the rain. I wasn’t enjoying it, but I knew I would get hot if the rain stopped.
For the first half of the race, we were mostly running along the same highway, through forests and within sight of a few lakes. This was the scenic part of the course. Regrettably, I don’t have any pictures of the course. I didn’t bring a camera, because I didn’t want it to get wet.
We eventually left that road to begin a long out-and-back section. We started this section by climbing a big hill. When I reached the 13 mile mark, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I didn’t lose any time on that hill. I turned in another 12 minute mile. There wasn’t a sign for the halfway mark, but I estimated I was on pace for a 5:15 finish. That would be a PR by almost eight minutes if I could keep up the pace.
A few minutes later, the marathon and half marathon courses diverged. We did a much longer version of the out-and-back before rejoining them. When we turned, we started a long dirt road section. In contrast to the dirt road at the beginning of the race, this one had pot holes, which were filled with water.
For the first time in miles, I saw a runner in the distance, wearing an orange shirt. I was gradually catching up to him. Before I reached him, I got to a steep downhill section with lots of rocks in the road. That was uncomfortable.
I turned a corner to see the 14 mile sign. Either it was misplaced, or I walked that mile in less than 11 minutes.
Before getting to the 15 mile mark, I passed the runner in the orange shirt. We turned onto another dirt road and I start seeing runners who were on their way back from the turnaround. The first one was the 4:30 pacer. Clearly, it was a long way to the turnaround.
It took me 12 minutes to get from 14 to 15 miles. Now I wondered if both of these mile markers were misplaced. Could I really have thrown in a sub 11 minute mile?
When I got to the next aid station, the 5:00 pacer was on her way back. She should have been about eight minutes ahead of me. That gave me a good idea how far it was to the turnaround. There weren’t any other runners between us.
On my way back, I started feeling grains of sand that were getting into my shoes. I’m prone to developing blisters around my heels when I race-walk. They were going to be bad after this race. The combination of rain, mud, hills, cambered roads, and sand in my shoes were really taking a toll.
I never saw the 16 mile sign. When I got to 17, my combined time for those two miles was 23:25. Apparently, I gained another 35 seconds over a 12:00 pace. If I could trust these mile markers, I was crushing the second half.
I eventually got back onto pavement. I thought I was nearing the end of the out-and-back, but nothing looked familiar. I should have looked at the course map. We still had another out-and-back. At least this one was on pavement.
When I got to the 18 mile sign, a volunteer saw me looking at my watch and said, “I don’t think you can trust it.” She was referring to the placement of the mile marker. This one was clearly way off. Either that, or I slowed to 15 minutes. Now I didn’t know if I could trust the previous four mile markers. Maybe I really did speed up. Maybe I was still going the same pace. Maybe I was starting to slow down. I had no idea.
I looked forward to seeing the 19 mile marker, so I could get a better idea. I never saw it. Eventually, I reached the 20 mile sign. My time there was 4:00:09. That’s roughly 12 minutes per mile on average. That was believable. I was motivated to work hard to keep up that pace. If I could, I had a shot at breaking 5:15. Even if I couldn’t, I was on my way to a PR.
As I came back out to the highway, I had to descend a steep hill. It made my blisters hurt more than ever. The last six miles were going to be painful.
I don’t recall exactly when the rain stopped, but now the sun came out. Suddenly, I felt hot. Fortunately, it was still mostly cloudy. Most of the time, the sun was behind the clouds.
After a few minutes on the highway, we turned onto another dirt road with rocks. I was looking for the 21 mile sign, but never saw it. I knew I missed it when I saw the 8 mile sign for the half marathon. More importantly, I saw pavement about a block ahead. That was a relief. That last section of dirt road was the most uncomfortable.
When I eventually reached the 22 mile sign, I got an update on my pace. For those last two miles, I averaged 12:15. Earlier, I would have been happy with that pace. Now it meant any chance of breaking 5:15 was gone. I could no longer maintain 12 minute miles, much less make up the time I had lost.
I passed the Grand Ely Lodge. As the crow flies, we were only about a mile from the finish, but I still had four miles to go. We were going to take a meandering route through town.
I did my best to walk as fast as I could, but I was beginning to fade. My next mile was a 12:20. Then 12:30. At that pace, I would finish in about 5:17. I worked as hard as I could.
Most of the course was well-marked, and there were volunteers everywhere we turned. That changed in the last two miles. There were numerous course marshals to stop traffic, but some of the turns didn’t have signs and the course marshals weren’t always making sure runners knew where to turn. I couldn’t always see other runners, so finding the route was sometimes a challenge.
With just over a mile to go, we turned onto the main highway through town. I recognized it, because I was about to run right past my hotel. I should make a list of all the races where I’ve done that.
I ran past the park where we would eventually finish. I saw a sign that read, “Swedish Line.” I quickly realized where that was going. It was follow by two more signs that read, “Norwegian Line,” and “Finnish Line.” Most people living in this area have Nordic heritage.
I still had to walk several blocks and then turn around and come back on another street. Looking ahead of me, I saw a big hill. There was a runner nearing the top. Of course we had to go up the hill before turning. Did I mention this is a challenging course?
For the last few blocks, my legs felt like lead, but I eventually finished in 5:17:17. That’s a new walking PR by more than four minutes. The finisher medal had a north woods design.
A volunteer told me the food tent was on my right and the beer garden was on my left. I asked her which way it was to the bathrooms. She said, “There’s lots of trees in the park. Just kidding. There’s port-o-potties to your right behind that tent.” Yup, I’m in Ely now.
I got to the beer garden in time for the awards ceremony. They started with the portage division for the half marathon. Yes. There were actually people who ran 13.1 miles carrying a canoe.
Getting back to my hotel was a bit of a challenge, since it was on the marathon route. It seemed like every street in the city was closed for the race. When I got there, I had to take a shower to rinse off the mud before I could take a hot bath. Then I gave my shoes a bath.
Excluding ultramarathons and races that no longer exist, I know of only one marathon in Minnesota I haven’t done yet. I’ll probably do that one next year.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 12:06
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 341
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras: 45