Sunday, October 6, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Twin Cities Marathon

On October 6th, I ran the Twin Cities Marathon.  This was my first marathon, back in 1983, and it’s the one I’ve run the most times.  I’d probably run it every year, but there are a lot of good marathons in October, and you can’t do them all.  Last year, for example, The Twin Cities Marathon fell on the same weekend as the Chicago Marathon, and I opted to do Chicago.  This year, there wasn’t any conflict.

Even still, I wasn’t originally planning to do this race.  I originally planned a race schedule for September and October that had me racing every other weekend.  As I gradually got into better shape and got more confident in my health, I decided to add races on the weekends in between if they didn’t involve travel.  For this race, I can sleep in my own bed.  It’s hard to resist doing one of your favorite races when it’s in your home town and you’re going to be home that weekend anyway.

One of the nice things about a home town race is that you can go to the expo a day earlier, when it’s not as crowded.  I went Friday, right after lunch.  The expo has held at RiverCentre in St. Paul, as it has been for several years.  I had to pay for parking, but it gave me an excuse to have lunch at Cossetta.  This is an Italian restaurant and market that I always recommend to friends who are coming in town for the marathon.

Saturday felt weird.  It was the day before a race, but I didn’t need to travel, and I didn’t need to pick up my race packet.  I took a day off from training, so I could have fresh legs on race day.  I normally do that, but I’m usually busy traveling somewhere.  After getting up, I organized my clothes for the race.  Then I just sat around the house relaxing and listening to music.  I rarely have days when I’m not busy doing something.  The only part of the day that felt normal (for the day before a race) was going to Italian Pie Shoppe to have pre-race pizza.

The Twin Cities Marathon is a point-to-point race, starting in downtown Minneapolis, and finishing in front of the State Capitol in St. Paul.  I always park near the finish and take a bus to the start.  One of the places where you can catch a bus to the start is the Best Western Plus Capitol Ridge.  I’ve always found that convenient, since there’s a large parking lot nearby.  Besides buses to the start, runners also have the option of taking light rail.  It’s free on race day if you’re wearing your race bib.

Buses started loading at 5:00 AM, but I didn’t need to be there that early.  The earliest buses were for runners doing the 10 mile race, which started at 7:00.  The marathon didn’t start until 8:00.  I didn’t leave the house until 5:15.  That got me to Best Western by 5:45 despite a few adventures with road construction and streets that were already blocked off for the race.  As I got out of the car, I realized I forgot to label my gear bag.  There was a sticker for that, but it was still on the back of my race bib.  I went inside the Best Western to take off my race bib, so I could label my gear bag.  While I was there, I bumped into two friends.

I didn’t get in line to board a bus until 6:15.  By then, there was a long line.  I finally got onto a bus around 6:30.  That still gave me plenty of time.  The driving distance from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis is only about 10 miles.

We got dropped off in downtown Minneapolis around 6:45.  I immediately got in line for one of the port-o-potties.  While I was walking around in the start area, I bumped into five other friends.  About 20 minutes before the start, I checked my gear bag and found my way into the start corrals.

At the start of the race, it was 48 degrees.  I knew it would warm up during the race, but there was also a cold wind, so I opted for tights and short sleeves.  I also started the race wearing gloves.

The race starts right next to US Bank Stadium.  This is a relatively new football stadium, which is home to the Minnesota Vikings.  The Super Bowl was played here in 2018.  I think the stadium was still under construction the last time I did this race.

My goal for this race was a bit of a compromise.  On one hand, this is a beautiful course, and I wanted to carry a camera and take pictures along the route.  I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.  On the other hand, I wanted to see if I could qualify for Boston two weeks in a row.  Why not do both?  Last weekend, I was able to run a relatively flat course in 3:27:14.  The qualifying standard for my age group is 3:35.  This course is also relatively flat, so I figured I could break 3:35, if I didn’t stop too many times to take pictures.

I didn’t see a pace group for 3:35, but there was one for 3:30.  I didn’t think I would run that pace for the whole race, but it seemed reasonable to run with them until I started taking pictures.  Then I didn’t have to pay attention to my pace.

The first mile was through downtown Minneapolis.  We started on Sixth Avenue.  A few blocks into the race, we ran underneath the Hennepin County Government Center.  The building goes right over the street, so when you run under it, it feels like you’re going through a tunnel.

The last time I did this race, we followed Sixth Avenue all the way to Hennepin.  This year, we turned left on Marquette Avenue.  As soon as I made that turn, I felt a cold headwind.  Next we turned right on 12th Avenue and followed that to Hennepin.  When we turned onto Hennepin, I again felt the wind.

After that it was the same route as usual.  When we passed St. Mary’s Basilica, all the bells were ringing.  That was a nice sound.  We turned onto Lyndale Avenue, and I stopped to take a picture as we ran past the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

My camera can’t focus when I’m moving.  I have to make a full stop and wait for it to focus.  I thought my first picture was too distant, so I took the time to zoom in for a better photo.  By the time I started running again, I had lost sight of the 3:30 group.

I really wanted to catch up, so I wouldn’t have to pay attention to my pace.  Lyndale is slightly uphill, which made it difficult to pick up my pace that much.  I was getting tired just trying, so I had to give up until later.

Then we turned onto Douglas Avenue, which brought us into the Kenwood neighborhood.  As we got to Kenwood Park, it was downhill, so I tried again to catch up.  I got closer, but then the street got too congested.  The 3:30 pace group was huge.  It filled the width of the street for about half a block.  I could get close enough to see the pace leader, but that’s it.

At the three mile mark, I checked my watch for the first time.  I was 11 seconds behind a 3:30 pace, but well under a 3:35 pace.

This race is billed as “The most beautiful urban marathon in America.”  I agree with that assessment.  Most races through large urban areas have to run through a few unsightly industrial areas in order to get to the more attractive areas.  This course doesn’t have any of that.  From here on out, the entire course was tree-lined parkways, mostly along lakes and rivers.

Shortly after leaving Kenwood Park, we arrived at the “chain of lakes.”  The first lake was Lake of the Isles.

After Lake of the Isles, we crossed Lake Street and reached Bde Maka Ska (formerly known as Lake Calhoun).  This is a popular spot for spectators.  I always enjoy the energy of the crowd here.  Near the south end of the lake, you get a great view of downtown Minneapolis from across the lake.  This view has been featured in movies that are set in Minneapolis.

I found some room on the side of the road, and got ahead of the 3:30 group.  Instead of stopping to take a picture and trying to catch up, I ran a little ahead of them.  Now, after stopping to take a picture, I would resume running just as they were catching up to me.  I questioned the wisdom of pacing myself like this.  It felt much too tiring for this early in the race.

Next, we followed a short parkway to the north end of Lake Harriet.  Along here, I heard someone in the crowd yell, “raise your hand if you want a doughnut hole.”  A runner near me raised her hand, and the spectator tossed a doughnut hole to her.

Lake Harriet is a popular site for 5K and 10K races.  The first 10K race I ever did was two laps around this lake.

At about seven miles, I got caught off guard, when I was all the way to the right hand side of the street, and I realized we were passing an aid station that was on the left side.  I tried to cross the street to get to the aid station, but three different runners collided with me.  Each time, I got knocked forward a little bit.  By the time I got to the left side of the road, I was past the Gatorade tables.  I had to run backwards to reach them.  That cost me some time, and I once again trailed the 3:30 group.  I tried to catch up, but then we turned onto a section of the parkway that was only one lane.  For the time being, I didn’t have room to move forward in the pack.

We only ran about halfway around Lake Harriet.  Then we ran through the Lynnhurst neighborhood for a few blocks to reach Minnehaha Parkway, which follows Minnehaha Creek.  The streets here were wider, and I was finally able to catch up to the group again.

Several local names include the prefix, “minne,” which is the Dakota word for water.  Minnehaha is often interpreted as “laughing water,” but a more literal translation is waterfall or rapids.  Minnesota means land of lakes.  Minneapolis means city of lakes.

The next three miles were along Minnehaha Parkway.  This part of the course has a few small hills, but none of them are long enough to make you adjust your pace.  I think of it as an opportunity to use a few different muscles.  I once again got ahead of the group.  Running uphill, I eased up enough that they would catch me.  Running downhill, I would pull away again.

We ran under two bridges.  The first went under Nicollet Avenue.  The first time I did this race, there was a small brass band under the bridge playing the theme from “The Muppets.”  This year, there was a drum group under the bridge.

The next bridge went under I-35W.  These two bridges were the only places in Minneapolis where cars could get across the course.

I was amazed how quickly the miles were flying by.  Shortly after eight, I reached nine, then ten.  Objectively, I knew each one took eight minutes, but it seemed like four or five minutes.

I was still running ahead of the 3:30 group, but I knew they were right behind me.  I continually heard the crowd cheering for them.  Over the years, I’ve learned there are three good ways to get strangers to cheer for you.  The first way is to have your name written on your shirt.  The second is to wear a costume or colorful outfit.  The third way is to lead a pace group.

At the 11 mile mark, I was almost a minute ahead of a 3:30 pace, but I could still hear the group right behind me.  Evidently, they were also ahead of schedule.

Just after 11 miles, we left Minnehaha Parkway to run a lap around Lake Nokomis.  This used to be the venue for the FANS 24-hour race, which I’ve done several times.  I’ve logged hundreds of miles around this lake, so I feel at home here.

On the east side of Lake Nokomis, we reached the halfway mark.  I got there in 1:43:57, which was about a minute ahead of a 3:30 pace.  At this point, I was right behind the 3:30 group.

Each of the aid stations was staffed by a corporate sponsor.  The one just past the halfway mark was staffed by Park Nicollet Clinics.  In addition to water and Gatorade, they had small glasses of pickle juice.  Instead of Gatorade, I drank the pickle juice.  That actually saved me some time.  Instead of slowing down to avoid bumping into other runners who were going for the water or Gatorade, I was able to get in and out quickly.  That caused me to get ahead of the 3:30 group again.

After Lake Nokomis, we followed Minnehaha Parkway for about two more miles.  After running through Minnehaha Park, we turned onto West River Parkway.  The next several miles were along the Mississippi River, although we seldom could see the river through the trees.

Here, I started to get farther ahead of the 3:30 group.  I could no longer hear people cheering for them.  I was still about a minute ahead of schedule, so I wasn’t speeding up.  They must have slowed down a bit.

At 18 miles, I saw some spectators who had set up a beer stop.  On other occasions I would probably partake, but not today.  I wanted to see if I could hold on and finish in 3:30.  I didn’t feel like I had much margin for error.  The pace was getting tiring, and I still had several photos planned.

Just past 19 miles, we crossed the Franklin Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi.  Here, we got our first unobstructed view of the river.

After crossing the river, we followed East River Parkway.  The first mile after crossing the river was slightly downhill.  At the 20 mile mark, I saw the ALARC “wall.”  ALARC is a local running club.  They’ve staffed the 20 mile aid station for as long as I can remember.

Shortly after the 20 mile mark, we started a three mile uphill section.  The total rise over this section is only about 150 feet, but if you’ve been running too fast for the first 20 miles, this is where you’ll feel it.  The beginning of this section corresponds roughly to where we left Minneapolis and entered St. Paul.  I never know exactly when the city limits are.  I don’t recall ever seeing a sign.

The only part this of uphill section that actually looks uphill is where you turn away from the river and run up a hill to reach the University of St. Thomas.  That was just past the 21 mile mark.

My goal going up this hill was to stay ahead of the 3:30 pace group.  First the first time, I saw someone walking.  Before long, I saw a dozen people walking.  I kept running.  I may have slowed a little, but I was still ahead of the 3:30 group.

After St. Thomas, we turned onto Summit Avenue.  This is a divided parkway that goes through an upscale neighborhood with several large homes and churches.  I reached the 22 mile mark and checked my watch.  That mile took 8:10, which may have been my slowest so far.  Overall, I was still ahead of schedule, and the toughest mile was now behind me.

Often during the race, I heard music from the crowd.  It always seemed to be a song that mentioned running.  Here, I heard Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.”  That’s how I was starting to feel, but I pressed on.

It was slightly uphill for one more mile, but it didn’t seem uphill.  I seemed relative flat, and I picked up my effort.  Mile 23 took 8:04.  I still had a cushion.

When I passed Cities Church, I knew I was reaching the highest elevation along Summit Avenue.  The last three miles are net downhill, although most of the descent comes at the very end.

I saw another beer stop.  There’s always one along Summit Avenue.  I wasn’t going to stop now.  I picked up my effort as much as I could.  I crossed the bridge over Ayd Mill Road.  Excluding I-94, which we would cross just before the finish line, this was the only place in St. Paul where cars could cross the course.  After a few more blocks, I passed St. Thomas More Catholic Church.  As I passed this church, I heard bells, but they seemed to be playing a melody.  It took me a moment to recognize it.  It was the theme from “Chariots of Fire.”

At 24 miles, I checked my watch.  I sped up to 7:34 in that mile.  There was no longer any doubt in my mind I would break 3:30.

I was stopping much more often than I planned, but I kept passing photogenic churches.  This is the House of Hope Presbyterian Church.

With a mile to go, I always start looking over the trees on my left.  When I could see the steeple of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I knew I was getting close to the finish.  By the time I stopped to take a picture, it had moved behind the trees again.

The next song I heard was “Up Around the Bend” by CCR.  The road was bending to the left.  Around this bend, I finally pass St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Now, looking ahead, you can begin to see the Minnesota State Capitol.

From here’s it’s sharply downhill to the finish.  Normally, I would sprint to the finish, but I had time, so I paused two more times to take pictures of the finish line, with the Minnesota State Capitol in the background.

I finished in 3:28:29.  During the race, I stopped 18 times to take pictures.  That was twice as many as I planned.  Each stop probably took at least 10 seconds.  That’s more than three minutes that I gave up, and I still ran almost as fast as my last race.  To say I was pleased would be an understatement.

This was the second consecutive weekend that I qualified for Boston.  The last time I did that was more than five years ago.

As usual, the finisher medal featured a leaf.  Autumn leaves used to be a signature of this course.  I recent years, the leaves haven’t been turning color until later in the month.  With the leaves in color, this course is even more beautiful.

After finishing, I had to remind myself that the finish area was organized differently this year.  I’m used to gear bag retrieval being to the right of the finish line.  This year, it was farther ahead.  I also had to remember to get my finisher shirt.  Those were on our left as we left the finisher chute.

Most races give you a shirt at packet pickup.  This one still does it the old-fashioned way.  The shirt says, “finisher,” and you don’t get it until you finish.

I used to be able to get out of the finish area quickly and walk directly to where my car was parked.  This year, they had fencing everywhere.  I had to walk a serpentine route through the finish area before I could exit.  It took much long than I expected to get to my car.

The drive home was frustrating.  I knew exactly what route I needed to take to avoid road closures, but other drivers apparently didn’t.  There were lots of traffic jams as drivers found out they couldn’t go the way they usually do, and tried to improvise.  I’ve never seen so many Minnesota drivers making U-turns.

When I got home, I got cleaned up and changed clothes.  Then I drove back into downtown St. Paul for a post-race party.  The party was for my friend Tom, who was celebrating his recent completion of both his 500th marathon and his 5th circuit of marathons in all 50 states.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:28:29
Average Pace:  7:57 
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  387
Minnesota Marathons:  56
Boston qualifiers:  127

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