It was a beautiful October Sunday morning in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I was on my way back from dropping a friend off at the airport. I had driven I-35 to get there, but I opted to take Highway 5 to Snelling Avenue on my return. The leaves were just starting to change, and I knew the drive would be pretty. As I neared Summit Avenue I saw more cars parked along the side streets than normal, and suddenly I arrived at a “road closed for event” sign. I looked ahead and saw runners streaming up Summit amid yellow leaves and cheering people. I had driven right into the Twin Cities Marathon.
“Someday…” I thought. Someday.
In early 2017 it’s over a decade later and still no Twin Cities Marathon. My busy farmer schedule has usually made it easier for me to train for long races over the winter and early spring, so all of my marathons have been run in May or June. After running my traditional Earth Day Half Marathon in April of this year I decided I was going to go for it. Amid what I knew would be a crazy summer of work and business transition at the farm, added responsibility, and an impending move, I decided I needed those training miles more than ever.
I signed up for a little support and expertise with the Train Like a Mother Club, and in June I finally submitted my marathon registration. Training with a group, even virtually, was such a fun change for me and a smart accountability tool. Camaraderie is important when you’re getting up at 3:45 a.m. to run 16 miles in the dark by yourself. Trust me.
Race week arrived, and with it my biggest fall race fears were realized. It is so hard to schedule specific dates during harvest. Each September week had been punctuated with rain delays, and that meant instead of harvesting our Corn silage (see fun silage + sauerkraut blog post here) in one stretch it was broken into painstaking intervals.
Instead of being nervous about several sub-par training weeks and missed runs throughout September I became nervous about whether I would be able to run the marathon at all. The bright spot I had been motivating myself toward all summer might not happen, and I was consumed by both a crushing sadness and a crazy energy to make every preparation possible at work and at home toward racing.
Race day was Sunday, October 1st, and by Thursday and Friday the forecast was strong for Sunday rain. I didn’t actually want it to rain on our harvest yet again, but if it had to rain I would running.
Harvest continued all day Saturday, and I was at work by 5:00 a.m. to feed calves and do numerous barn chores for people who were in the field. My gracious mom came to stay with us for the weekend, so at least I knew my son, aka Speedy, was cared for and happy during my long work day.
When we finish our silage pile (or when it’s going to rain) we cover it with giant sheets of plastic and re-used slices of semi tires to hold the plastic down. It’s hard to describe, but it involves lots of walking and carrying even with many people to help. Here’s a few visuals for you!
By about 8:00 p.m on Saturday we were sure the rain was coming, so we gathered people and prepared to cover the pile. A few hours later we were finishing, and the first raindrops were falling. I was super glad I had packed a preliminary marathon bag on Friday night because I would need all the sleep I could get.
Fortunately I had found a fellow mother runner from my training group to pick up my marathon number for me and meet me Sunday morning. All I needed to do was hear my 3:30 a.m. (or 3:40 or 3:42) alarm so I could make the drive to St. Paul and meet up with her. My mom thought perhaps I was too low on sleep and should consider not running, and a small rational part of my brain agreed I was exhausted.
But I quickly shut that rational part down. 😄 I had already adjusted my expectations because of less than ideal training, and I could adjust them a little more based on the past week. I had been looking forward to this marathon all summer, and I had been wanting to run it for over 10 years. I would give it my best.
The morning was dark as I drove in a light drizzle to St. Paul and met up with fellow mother runner Jaime to get my race bib and catch a bus to the start. Looking back I wonder why we didn’t get a pre-race photo together, but it’s probably because the gusty wind and rain caused us to huddle under a overhang until we absolutely had to be in our starting corral. I’m so grateful to Jaime for the friendly chatter and companionship during that cold wait.
I promised myself I would run the first few miles easy and not get caught up in the start line excitement of downtown Minneapolis. It’s always best to conserve energy in the early miles anyway, and I knew I was starting with less to burn.
Starting conservatively proved easy because my legs needed warming up, and I developed a side ache almost right away. I was running slowly enough that hundreds of people were passing me, and I managed to smile because at least I was sticking to the plan. My heart rate stayed just under 140 as I warmed up, and I was glad I’d made the choice to wear it and get that physical feedback. I thought about how grateful I was to even be running, and thankfulness remained a nearly constant theme when my body started to struggle.
I started wearing a light jacket covered in paint stains, but by mile two I cast it to the side of the road along with other discarded long sleeves, pants, and warm up gear.
I didn’t think about much for awhile other than gratitude. Many people in this world cover long distances every day to secure clean water, food, work, or education. I get to do it for fun, for mental clarity, and to reach goals. That is a true privilege.
I ran mostly in my own bubble until mile four or five when a familiar voice from behind greeted me by name and said she liked my tank top. This was none other than Sarah Bowen Shea (SBS), co-founder of the Train Like a Mother Club and host of the Another Mother Runner podcast I have listened to over many training miles.
I met SBS last year at the Twin Cities Marathon Expo when I ran the 10K with Speedy, but I feel like I’ve known her much longer. I’m certain the friendly way she shares stories and advice on the podcast invites everyone who listens to feel like a friend. We chatted for a few minutes, and I shared the pitfalls of corn silage and my early morning wake-up. Being from the west coast I’m sure she also felt the effects of the early morning and her time change.
Soon we found our own solo rhythm again, but every now and then I would leap-frog with her and share a wave or hello.
In these middle miles I talked to lots of people — especially giving encouragement to those who already looked rough or cheering along someone who whizzed by me looking strong. The road is invitingly narrow as it travels around lakes and the river, and many neighborhoods lined their streets to give high fives and provide their own refreshment.
I ate less of my own gel packs than ever because I took advantage of their offerings. At one point I ran carrying and eating a whole banana, and I also feasted on pretzels, several lengths of licorice, and numerous jolly ranchers. Around mile sixteen I stuck my earbuds in my ears and turned up the music. This is usually the point I need something to change, and as always the music provided welcome energy and distraction. I focused on the pumping beat of Pink as I continued high-fiving little kids and wondering when I would finally get to Summit Avenue.
By mile twenty the off and on drizzle had turned to rain, but it was a light rain. I didn’t feel particularly wet, and I thought about how much happier I was running in fifty degrees with light rain than I would have been in seventy degrees with bright sun.
Miles twenty-one to twenty-three are some of the longest sustained hills on the course, and my legs were starting to crumble. I smiled and waved like a weirdo when I saw the mother runner cheering squad after mile twenty-two, but once I passed them I feel back into my own little world of struggle. To this point I had felt reasonably good after the first few warm up miles. I wasn’t pushing the pace, and I had been soaking in the joy of the day — just how I hoped to. But by mile twenty-three it got hard. Really hard. I turned my focus again to gratitude, but my stride was halting and choppy. I knew it would be a grind to the finish.
Just then a pleasant surprise showed up behind me when I needed it most. It was SBS, telling me to smooth out my stride. She told me, “we’ve got this,” and I started to believe her. I ran in back of her until mile twenty-five, and then I found the legs to catch up. We were both running at a good clip compared to the people around us, and it was encouraging to me to be passing people again and finding a second (or maybe third) wind.
My legs and feet were cramping, hurting, stinging as we started on the final downhill that leads to the finish, but I was still running even with Sarah. I couldn’t let myself give up or miss the opportunity to finish together.
As you can probably tell, I often chat or run with people in the middle miles of a race. I have never actually finished a marathon with a friend — be it an old friend or one newly acquired along the way. I think it’s truly rare to be so in sync with someone at the end of 26.2 miles that you naturally run stride for stride. Usually one person has just a little more to give, and neither wants to hold the other back. During the last mile of the Twin Cities Marathon I felt the connection of our steps, and I’m certain we were both running with everything we had. Though she looked smoother doing so than I did!
The finish was a blur of trying to raise my arms enthusiastically and then get my hands on water, bagels, salted nut rolls, and anything else I could manage to hold. I did have my arms up, but apparently not long enough for the photographer to capture
As I stopped I instantly became a shivering mess. My feet cramped, my toes started to curl inside my shoes, and it took every shred of my concentration to keep walking forward and thank the volunteers. I was more than relieved I had put a sweatshirt and long pants in my finish line gear back, and I was grateful not to be alone as I painfully but triumphantly made my way through the crowd.
And so I got to run my Twin Cities Marathon. Hundreds of miles in training — almost 100 run while pushing my favorite little running buddy — and the virtual support of amazing women across the country helped me get to this race. It was my sixth marathon, my first since becoming a mom, and my slowest to date. Alas, my marathon PR streak ends at five, and at 4 hours 34 minutes I ran over four minutes slower than my very first. It was still worth every step, and I wouldn’t change my strong finish with SBS for anything. I don’t think I have ever found more catharsis in my training miles or more value in the journey. I will run faster again someday, but I don’t think I will ever run more grateful.