“In every race, something within each athlete (something we may now specify as perception of effort) poses a simple question: How bad do you want it? To realize your potential, you must respond with some version of this answer: More.” — Matt Fitzgerald, author if How Bad Do You Want It?
Sitting on an old dorm room chair, time ticked off agonizingly slow.
The view outside of the window offered one blessing already: the severe thunderstorms forecast for the morning would stay away, most likely for the duration of the 40th Grandma’s Marathon. But a warm, think air hovered — barely a breath of air rustled the trees in the background — and runners would not see ideal conditions.
Before leaving to catch a bus to the starting line, I did a quick online search and found this article about running in high humidity, and it didn’t offer any additional comfort. Race day would be a sufferfest.
In an oversimplified explanation, running in heat poses several problems:
- It places more stress on the heart, which must work harder to circulate blood, and an athlete’s performance maxes out sooner.
- In turn, muscles receive less oxygen — prompting early arrival of one’s anaerobic threshold — and more energy is used to cool the body, bringing on exhaustion sooner.
- It means your body is stressed greater, and we become less efficient.
- Add humidity to the mix, the body is robbed of energy and an athlete tires sooner.
Arriving early Saturday in Two Harbors, the conditions — 68 degrees and 93 percent humidity at 7:30 a.m. — were more favorable to mojitos on the deck than running long distances. At the same time, it was 62 at the finish line in Duluth’s Canal Park, but most of runners would need several hours to get there.
Fortunately, I saw some friends from Grand Forks, and they were all prepared and focused.
Here, despite the conditions, I was determined to use the same strategy as my Fargo Marathon plan by running as many miles as I could before succumbing to the heat. This would be my commitment to pain.
The race marked my 8th anniversary of running marathons, and I hadn’t been here since 2012. There were a few more rolling hills then I remembered. Feeling strong, I tested my pace early, throwing in surges from time to time, and by the halfway point, my focus was singular.
As I crossed the 15-mile marker, someone flipped on Mother Nature’s oven. Suddenly it felt hot.
The wind off of Lake Superior was so minimal, there was no relief from the unrelenting sun. Moments of shade were too few and far between. Climbing through mile 18, I knew there were two challenges remaining: making up a little bit of time on the long gradual declines between here and the finish, and not burning up on Lemon Drop Hill at mile 22. My one hopeful thought was looking for Melinda, an old colleague who was volunteering at mile 20, in hopes that her cheering would give me a boost.
It did. But only for a few moments as my body had lost its ability to move into a higher gear.
My mantra of “easy, light, smooth,” slipped from my mind. As my running became less efficient, my pace down the hills couldn’t make up for the time I began to lose on the asphalt. It had to be much warmer here, in the jungle and concrete of the city, than at the finish near the water.
Nearing downtown Duluth, the 24th mile marker seemed as though it took a long time to reach. Could I push the final 2 miles and make up a little time? The city and its spectators turned out in full force. Their voices would carry me.
My focus during the first 18 miles had been on running in the moment. Now, I couldn’t escape one overriding thought: all of this would soon be over.
And the sooner I arrived at the finish line, the sooner I could end the pain.
Almost like a slingshot, I whipped through the final turn and into Canal Park. My steps were no longer light, easy or smooth. My final quarter-mile kick didn’t resemble the finish of most of my previous marathons.
Crossing the finishing mat, where it was 72 degrees and cooler than out on the roads, brought relief buoyed by the appreciation of finishing my 20th marathon.
Along with it came the understanding that I’d given everything out on the course. Perhaps it would have been a few minutes faster without such difficult conditions. But 3:19:07 allowed me to dip under 3:20 for the fifth time — and third time since last October. It was 41 seconds faster than Fargo.
A story in the Duluth News Tribune provided some context for a race that saw twice as many runners end up in the medical tent than last year. Another story noted that the men’s second place finisher won during similar conditions at the Los Angeles Marathon, where I also ran.
Read all of the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage here.