Huge thanks, as always, to the many, many people who made this possible – including but not limited to: my coach, Jon Waldron; my sponsors HOKA ONE ONE and STRIVE Trips and Nuun Hydration; my amazingly supportive parents, partner, and – of course – cat, Richard Parker; and finally, all of my friends and fans who have followed my journey over the last 8 years. I can’t wait to see what’s next and I hope y’all stick around to see it too.
I wake up at 3:45am, four hours before the gun. My roommate, Jeff, is still sleeping, so I gather up the laptop and music I need to keep me occupied for the next hour and a half and head down to the Raddisson’s lobby.
I’m almost surprised that no one else is down here. The half marathon starts over an hour before our race, the full marathon, but the lobby is quiet and empty. I sit on a hard leather chair and put my feet up, settling down to answer the myriad emails that have come in overnight from a variety of parents and students who are about to head to Peru with STRIVE. It’s a welcome distraction.
Skinny, anxious people adorned in spandex and garbage bags start to putter about over the next hour and I do my best to ignore them. I move to quiet spot on the lower-level now, sitting on the floor and facing away from the hubbub. Around 5am, I head back up stairs, as planned, to meet Jeff before we both head to the start at 5:30.
Jeff is already awake and just about ready as the two of us pack our clear plastic bags which a van will carry to the finish line 26 miles down the road.
“Maybe we should just hide among the bags,” Jeff says. “Mike-Rossi it all the way to mile 25!”
Downstairs, we wait a few minutes and then board the bus which will carry us and our fifty closest friends in Duluth out to Two Harbors, some 25 miles northeast of town.
The ride is impossibly long. I’m glad to have Jordan Chipangama next to me as a distraction from the unavoidable passage of time and distance. We talk about Flagstaff, AZ and his training there under coach Ben Rosario (who also coaches a HOKA ONE ONE sponsored group), how happy he is and how how much he loves Flag. We both hope the weather will hold out today.
When we arrive at the start, it seems our prayers have been answered. The skies are cloudy, but no rain falls. The winds are almost non-existent and the temperature is brisk. I’m actually quite cold walking to the elite athlete area and Jordan lends me his gloves.
We huddle under our tent – the body heat warming the air just slightly. I use the bathroom and then I’m heading out for my last warm-up of the season.
The weather is still great, but the wind from the South is picking up and blowing into our faces. In the port-a-potty a few minutes after I get back, I here the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the roof of the plastic enclosure. Rain.
I make it back to the tent just in time. The heavens open and suddenly a hundred bony bodies are pressing against each other in our tent, as if we’re all waiting for a rock concert and all want to stay as close to the stage as possible. I check the radar on my phone and all I see is a giant glob of green, currently consuming Duluth and heading toward us quickly. It’s about to get wet.
Other than 8 minutes of jogging, I haven’t had the space to do any more significant warm-up. Standing in the cold and wind at the start line, I think of a friend, Matt Pelletier, who had gotten hypothermia after winning the Hartford Marathon in October on a day not dissimilar from today. I throw a black garbage bag over my head and hope for the best. Half of me wants them to delay the race – or maybe just cancel it so we don’t have to run – the other half just wants to move. Let’s get it over with.
The rain is still falling steadily as the gun fires and we take off. I’ve positioned myself around two runners (Brian Harvey and Eric Ashe of the BAA) whom I know and whose goals are similar to mine. Almost immediately, a gap forms between a front group of (almost entirely African) runners and us – the chase pack. There’s a lot of guys in that lead pack, but I know that not all of them are going to finish in front of me.
Leading up to this race, I’ve had a string of extremely successful workouts. I know that I’m in the best shape of my life – far better than when I ran 2’16’59 six months earlier. I’ve been able to run faster and longer than I ever have before, and I couldn’t wait to get to this moment – the moment when I’d get to see what it meant on race day.
But much to my dismay, the weather is not cooperating. From 4-5 days out, it had become clear that today was not going to be a good day for running fast. The Grandma’s Marathon course is essentially a straight line, heading south-west. The forecast called for winds from the South/South-West (a head-wind) and rain and thunderstorms. With this in mind, my coach – Jon Waldron – and I had spoken about what this would mean with regards to my specific goals and expectations for the race.
Originally, we had talked about running under 2h15 – the Olympic “A” standard – and based on my training over the past few months, this seemed to be a very reasonable expectation. Now, with a 26 mile rainy, headwind, we’ve scaled back our expectations. Our focus shifted more to running a competitive race, sticking with a group, and finishing in a good position. The time is a secondary goal.
I’m in the middle of a big pack that comes through the first mile in about 5’15. The pace is slow (about 10 seconds off my goal pace), but it’s so early that I don’t even think about it. Two miles pass quickly, and before I know it, we’re passing 5k in about 16’10. Still, the pace is slow, but the effort feels right and there’s a giant gap between us and the leaders already, so I decide not to risk venturing away from the herd on my own. I sit tight.
The second 5k flies past and we pass the first Rossi mat at 10k in 32’13. We’ve run that second 5k in just a shade over 16’00 which is 2h15 pace and I wonder if we’ll be able to keep it up.
Quickly, I realize that we won’t, as the group starts to slow significantly. Feeling strong and wanting to keep the pace honest, I move to the front and try to urge the group on, increasing the tempo slightly. But no one seems to want to go. And unlike CIM, I’m not going to sprint away from the pack this time, so I stay at the front and run as fast as I can without leaving the others behind.
We continue on in this fashion for several miles. I drop back in the pack a few times and move up to the front when I feel the pace really begin to lull. I’m trying to do the math of what pace we’re on, but I’m surprised to see the half marathon split of 68’30 – I was sure we’d be faster than that.
Now, I’m not feeling great, but I know that I need to try to accelerate as our pack begins to fall apart. Harvey, Ashe, and I (along with a few others) are still going strong and we run a very strong 10k from 20-30k in 31’55 (sub 2h15 pace). But the pace feels harder than it should. Around 25km, I’m feeling a great deal of pain and fatigue in my hips, glutes, and hamstrings in particular. I wonder if it’s the constantly rolling course or maybe just running into the wind for so long. Whatever the reason, it’s too early.
At 19 miles, I almost have to stop running to grab my fluid bottle, and the loss of momentum is impossible to make up. Suddenly, Ashe, Harvey, and the one or two others are a few second ahead of me. I tell myself not to freak out. I’ll catch back up gradually – be smart – but my legs want nothing to do with it. Without the others an arm’s reach in front of me, my body is rebelling against my brain’s intention to continue accelerating.
I can’t find that pace again. I’m stuck in a low gear and the others are pulling away from me. It’s over. This is the wall. The next mile will be 7 minutes.
It’s not quite so bad. I do slow down, but not as much as I’d feared. The headwind is more pronounced now as I’m running alone, exacerbating the fatigue in my muscles. I really, really want to stop.
At 35km, around 21-22 miles, is the longest and steepest hill on the course (dubbed “Lemon Drop Hill” for a now defunct eatery – love the Mid West). I can see it coming from far away, and though I’m suffering, I’m actually passing some other runners and I think that if I can make it over this hill, I might just be able to finish.
So, up I go. Not charging, just maintaining the effort – ignoring the split for that mile. At the top of the hill, I take my last PowerGel and suddenly everything just feels better. It could be the sugar or caffeine of the gel, it could be mental relief of having finished the toughest part of the course, it could be the physical relief of running downhill after running uphill. Whatever – I’m feeling good.
And suddenly, I’m gaining on the runners in front of me. Harvey and Ashe – who had been seemingly out of reach – are suddenly coming back to me. Could it be? Could I still be having a good race?
I remind myself of all the work – all the impossibly long, hard, fast runs done over the last six months – and I find it. I can feel the finish and suddenly my legs listen to my brain as I tell them to accelerate.
Meanwhile, I’m still try to do impossible arithmetic, but I give up, focusing only on the backs of those in front of me. We’re in downtown Duluth now, and the streets are packed with hearty Minnesotans who have decided to stand outside in the cold and rain to watch the skinny parade go by. But it’s all a blur and I try to just keep putting one foot in front of another. Counting down the minutes.
I cross the bridge with a mile to go and it’s all on the table. The last mile is full of turns – impossible turns that sap momentum and make the finish seem deceivingly close and then offensively far. I see Ashe and Harvey and a third runner and I’m going to catch them. I’m pumping my arms – this is terminal.
I catch one of them and cross the line in 2’17’19.
Harvey and Ashe are there and we’re all happy to be finished. We walk up the street, looking for some place to sit down, change our clothes. But someone just hands us our bags and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go.
The three of us sit on the curb and take off our soaked singlets and shoes. Somehow, it seems that the sun is beginning to poke out. The rain had been on and off for the last hour, but this is real sunshine!
With nowhere to go, I pack my sopping clothes into my bag and being the 15 minute walk back to the Raddisson.
It’s impossibly anticlimactic. I walk through Duluth’s bizarre network of tunnels and sky bridges – my brain still dazed, my body quivering. People walk by, smiling and chatting as if nothing had happened. How do they not feel the weight? Do they not feel what I feel? Do they not feel the nostalgia? The consolidation of six months into two hours and seventeen minutes, densely compressed into a singularity like the center of a neutron star?
I’ve run a good race. I know that. But I can’t help but be frustrated. I’m frustrated because the time on the clock – 2’17’19 – doesn’t represent what I was capable of. I feel a need to mark the time with an asterisk, to quickly follow up with an explanation that – well, the weather, it was rough; and I had to lead a lot; it was a tough day, you know? but it was still a good race, for sure. For sure. I want to be satisfied with this race but at the same time, I’m afraid to let people think I’m satisfied with the time alone.
I know my body and I know what I’m capable of. Before CIM, I said to Jon, “I can run in the 2h16s or 2h17s. I know that already. In my eyes, I’m already a 2h16-17 marathoner, even if I don’t have it on paper.” I ran 2’16’59.
Going into this race, I thought I could run 2h14-15. And so, I already knew that I wasn’t a 2h16-17 marathoner anymore. I just had to prove it on race day.
But today, I didn’t prove it. Not to anyone else at least. Maybe Jon understands – he knows me maybe even better than I do. But for the rest of the world, I’ve only gotten 20 seconds slower in the last six months.
But what I see – and what Jon sees – is that this marathon is one datum in a series of performances, both in racing and training, since the beginning of this year. I set new personal bests at 5k (14’29), 10k (29’06), 10 miles (48’51), and half marathon (1’03’38). As a data-driven person, I can’t help but zoom out from this marathon and look at the block as a whole – to me it’s obvious that I reached a new level of fitness this year, even if it didn’t materialize on this one last race-day. And that’s all we ever try to do – be more fit this season than the last.
I get to the Raddisson and take the elevator to the second floor. I slump down, my back against the bed. I haven’t eaten anything yet; I’m still not ready.
It’s been a long six months; and, I can’t wait to see what the next six bring.
But first, I need to eat something. I need to rest. There will be time.
Full Splits (from GPS watch):
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