Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Friday, October 9, 2015

Running Marathon #2: Twin Cities Marathon October 4, 2015

Running Marathon #2: Twin Cities Marathon October 4, 2015 by Elspeth Ronnander

The lead up (aka “putting money in the bank”)

I did my first running marathon, the Montreal Marathon, in 2011 when I was 26. My goal for that marathon was to run sub 4 hours. My training went well- I gradually increased my mileage every week for 3 months, but I did very few speed workouts. Marathon day was warm, going from about 75 to 85 degrees with high humidity. I was a bit eager at the start and pushed hard for the first 8 miles and then blew up. For the remaining 18 miles I did what I call the “dead jog.” I was able to maintain about a 9:30-10:00 minute per mile pace but I just had no desire to go faster and couldn’t really push my body harder anyway. In the end I ran 4 hours and 16 minutes which I guess isn’t terrible considering the weather and that it was my first marathon. 

The Montreal Marathon was intended to be my first and only marathon but I came up a bit short of my goal. I also had a desire to run Twin Cities Marathon which is frequently mentioned as being not only the most beautiful urban marathon, but also a really good one to run in the United States. When I was a kid, my dad took me out to watch the marathon. My dad did a bit of running in his younger days but wasn’t much of a runner. I could tell though, that he had a great appreciation for runners- for the fast runners but also the middle of the pack runners.

In 2015, at age 30, I decided it would be a good year to run Twin Cities Marathon. This was largely decided after I figured out my vacation schedule as canoeing for two weeks (as I had done in previous years) is not really good marathon training a month before the event. This time around I really wanted to break 4 hours and set this as my goal. I adjusted my training compared to 4 years previous to include more distance sessions but also much more speed. In the intervening 4 years I had also run a couple half marathons and in typical Elspeth fashion ran several 12-13 milers, and even one 16 mile run in preparation for those half marathons! 

Last year, when I was 29, I started working on trying to break the 6 minute mile again. This isn’t exactly the best marathon training but it has gotten me doing more speed and in my second year of working on this I could really tell my running speed training from the previous year made me faster this year.

My marathon training plan began about 3 months before the marathon. I tend to make my own training plans and usually this seems to work OK for me, and better since I’ve been regularly incorporating intervals. The last couple winters I’ve also “ran through the winter.” Typically I do about 3 running workouts a week from the middle of March through December or whenever I get on snow. The last two winters I have tried running about 6 miles just once per week (typically home from work). I’ve noticed that running even just once per week keeps my running muscles primed so I can jump back into running in the spring. So this spring- that’s just what I started doing. Erik (my husband, who also decided to run the Twin Cities Marathon as his first running marathon) and I did our “long” runs on the weekends. We just kept increasing our mileage until we were doing about 13 miles by the middle of May. At this point we were about 4 ½  months out from the marathon. I didn’t want to burn out or get injured so I pretty much kept my long runs at 13 miles until the beginning of July when I caught up with my training plan. I figured this extra distance could only help me.

In July when I was about 3 months out from the marathon I started increasing my distance. The first workout I did was 14 miles with a 4 mile race in the middle (Erik did this too, we ran to the race and then ran the long way home). The following week Erik competed in the Lifetime Fitness Triathlon and I did my run while cheering. I ended up running 17 miles by the time I got home. I was still well above my weekly long run goals but I was super psyched after this run because it was the longest distance I had ever run without being sore afterwards! 

For my first marathon I increased my long run by about 1.5 miles every week. I felt like that wasn’t quite enough so for my second marathon I decided to do about the same thing but do 2 weeks each at 12, 15, and 18 miles. That plan got a bit thrown aside after I did that 17 miler. The following 3 weeks I backed down to 15 miles for my long runs. Then I did a 19 miler with some friends (including fellow Vakava teammates and ultramarathoners Craig and Rob). That run, in which we were trying to include quite a bit of elevation, felt very good. Again, I wasn’t sore afterwards, although a bit stiff.
The next week I ran 15 miles, and then the following week 16.5 miles on the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills. This trail is tough. It’s crushed limestone or gravel at 5,000 feet of elevation. It’s either gradual uphill or gradual downhill for miles. Running uphill felt hard and downhill easy. Erik and I then spent 7 days hiking about 6 hours per day in Wyoming’s Wind River Range around 10,000 feet of elevation. This is where it gets hard to plan in vacations. We both wanted to do this trip but we had to weigh the altitude training with not running for a whole week. On our way home we again ran on the Mickelson Trail. Our intention was to do an 18 mile run but we were both a bit sore from hiking and our running muscles weren’t really in form. Also, as previously mentioned, it’s difficult on the body to run all downhill especially for several miles at a time. We also wanted to get back home at a decent time that day so we ended up running only 13.5 miles which left me feeling a bit defeated.

The next week we were back at distance training with an 18 miler, now 4 weeks out from the marathon. This was Labor Day weekend and we went for a steamy run. We both felt good until the last 5 miles when we were on straight sunny roads with temperatures in the 80s. It was good to run that distance but I wanted to feel stronger at the end. It’s also a bit frustrating realizing the marathon is still another 8 miles in length which is more than another hour of running time. 

The following week, now 3 weeks out from the marathon, we did a 22 miler. We actually ran a good chunk of the Minneapolis side of the marathon course. Throughout all this training I kept telling myself I should stop doing my long runs with Erik who was trying to run a Boston Qualifier time (sub 3:05 for males under 35) because we were always running close to my goal marathon pace. To run under 4 hours, I had to run 9:07 miles. Running with Erik we usually ran around that pace and for the most part it felt easy. So on this 22 mile run I ran with Erik for about the first 17 miles around my goal pace. I hit 19.5 miles right at the 3 hour mark so I was on my pace, and again, it felt pretty easy. I actually ran a few sub 9 minute miles towards the end of my run and as I approached 22 miles I had a thought about actually going to 26.2 miles to see if I could run sub 4 hours on an OPEN course. My body was started to get a bit stiff though and I knew that wasn’t good training so I stopped at 22 miles. I was really glad to get in a good long distance run after not feeling very good the two previous weeks. 

It felt really good to have my long run down. Throughout this whole process I was quite paranoid about getting injured. I never feel this in skiing but in running this worry is so omnipresent and in almost every run I felt something hurt, even if it was just some rubbing on one of my toes. 
Around this time I had a shoe crisis. A few months earlier I had bought 2 new pairs of shoes for the marathon. I was undecided which pair to wear, but neither felt terribly good. Lately I’ve been wearing very lightweight shoes and the new shoes were heavier. These new shoes just felt clunky. Fortunately I had kept a pair of my old lightweight shoes around and even though they were somewhat worn out and had some cracked seams, I got them out for my last hard week of training. These shoes felt so much better on my feet- like ballet shoes. I wore them for my 18 mile run 2 weeks out and they felt pretty good so I decided to use them. 

The last two weeks I tapered and 1 week out I ran a half marathon which ended up being around my goal pace. It didn’t necessarily feel hard, but it wasn’t super easy either so as usual I began to fret. Throughout these last 4 weeks I was doing speed workouts once per week. I alternated half mile repeats (for me around 7:20 mile pace) and “pace” workouts which I kept running around 8:06 ish mile pace. Erik and Craig kept telling me I needed a more aggressive marathon goal than sub 4 hours. I thought about trying to run a Boston Qualifier myself (sub 3:35 for women under 35) but that is 8:12 mile pace and I thought that was a bit too aggressive and after my last marathon it was important for me to make my goal and ideally run a negative split for the second half. I kind of came up with a marathon goal of running in the low 3:50s because I thought I could probably do this although I was also interested in running around 3:46 because this would give me a 30 minute PR which sounds pretty badass.

I’ll also mention that as a skier I was diligent about getting in 3 strength workouts a week (abs, lots of pull ups), 3 rollerski workouts a week, and in June I did the Chippewa Triathlon which is a canoe-mountain bike-run that I completed in just over 5 ½ hours.

Race Day

Some people really seem to like to race and I’m still wavering whether I’m one of those people. I end up thinking about the race a lot before it happens. I thought about this marathon for months which intensified in the weeks and days leading to the race. I fixated on the pace I needed to run, the burning lungs as I tried to negative split, and how my body would feel. In the last couple weeks I came up with a couple mantras I told myself to repeat during the race. During the first half I was to “relax” and “run my pace.” In the second half I was supposed to “feel strong and enjoy passing people.” 

I had a couple fitful nights of sleep before the marathon. It’s always difficult to taper and try to do little or no exercise in the couple days before the event which probably adds to my restlessness. I cherish anything which takes my mind off the race. I reviewed the race course, thought about my feeding and hydration plan, and made mental marks of certain mile markers. Living in Saint Paul, and having grown up in Minneapolis, I am very familiar with the course. And as Craig remarked, “I would hate to live where you guys do” because our house is just 2 blocks south of the 22 mile marker!

My plan for the race was to start conservative. I used my Garmin watch and set it to do ½ mile splits. I like the constant feedback. I really didn’t want to start too fast and blow up so I told myself not to run any sub 9 minute miles for the first 6 miles. Then I could start running fast. But again, I wasn’t totally sure how I’d feel so my plan was to do nose breathing for as long as I could as this seems to keep me more relaxed and tells me I am truly going at an easy pace. 

The couple days before the race I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to wear. The race start was going to be sunny, around 45 degrees, warming up to the upper 50s while I was out on course. I thought about wearing spandex pants but hadn’t trained in them and so was worried about chafing so I decided to just wear the spandex shorts I had done my long runs in without chafing. I debated wearing a long sleeve shirt but for sure decided to wear gloves. In the end my friend Emily lent me her arm warmers so I wore those with my gloves, running bra, shorts, socks and shoes. 

I woke up marathon morning with butterflies in my stomach which is typical for me before races. I ate a small breakfast I had been practicing in the past few weeks before my long runs. One of the big differences between running and skiing marathons is that I have to be really careful to not eat too much. Our friend Emily gave us a ride to the start in downtown Minneapolis. Since I work at Hennepin County Medical Center, which is right by the start, a lot of anxiety about the location of the start, port-a-potty’s, and bag drop-off was relieved.

I had a couple indicators the race was going to go well. First, I felt jittery which is always a good sign. Second, I was intensely emotional. I kept getting these urges to burst into tears as we walked to the start. I used to feel this in high school before track meets and I get it every once in a while before ski marathons. Whenever I get this feeling, I know it’s going to be a good race. I had to keep fighting this emotion as we walked to the start as I really didn’t want to start crying.

We got to the start half hour before the race. I got in the port-a-potty line and then waited until 10 minutes before the start to take off my warm-ups. I got in the corral and realized I was way too far back as I saw the 4 ½ hour pacer. Although I’m somewhat of a novice at running marathons, I’ve done almost 40 ski marathons and there are a lot of similar tactics. I just moved my way up through the crowd (so much easier without skis) til I got near the 4 hour pacer. Then I waited for our start time which was delayed a bit as I was in corral 2. I crossed the start line over 7 minutes after the elite runners.  

I tried to stay relaxed but felt like I was passing people right from the start. I got ahead of the 4 hour pacer. I passed 2 women wearing banana costumes being chased by a guy in a gorilla suit. My first ½ mile split was a 9:08, right on pace. I kept running relaxed. There’s a big uphill just before mile 2 and when my watch split read 8:49 and I felt like I was breathing easy I knew this was going to be a good day. I told myself to reign it in though. When I ski my marathons, in the small ones I’m often trying to win, in the big ones, I’m at least going for top 20; in this running marathon, I was going to finish way back in the hundreds.

I kept up my nose breathing and didn’t worry too much that my 8:40 splits were faster than I planning to run because (1) I didn’t feel like I was pushing and (2) all my training pointed towards me being capable of maintaining this pace. Throughout the race I was always vaguely aware of where I was on the course, but most of the time I paid attention to other runners (I did a lot of passing) and the spectators. I read a lot of fun signs that got a little boring in the second half of the race when they seemed to repeat. Although dubbed as “the most beautiful urban marathon” I didn’t notice the scenery around me. 

I was never warm or cold so I had made a good clothing selection. Because it was a cool day, I knew I could skip a good number of water stops. I typically balance my water intake with how bad I will have to pee. Often I skip the first couple water stops in a marathon. For Twin Cities I decided to take water at 5 miles and then every other water stop from there (which would be about every 4 miles). I wasn’t particularly concerned whether I got water or energy drink. I ended up getting energy drink at the stop at 5 miles before I learned energy was first, water second. I knew I had to take feeds during the race and from doing long marathons like the 55 km Birkie Classic, I figured I could get by with about 3 feeds. I began experimenting in my long runs and actually really liked eating half a Cliff bar at a time. I found it really easy to just hold in one hand and chew- especially if I was nose breathing. I played around with how to carry the Cliff bar and eventually broke it in half and put it in a small bag. I started the marathon with half a Cliff bar stuffed down my shorts which I ate easily around 7 miles without breaking stride, a second ½ Cliff bar Craig handed me at mile 10, and a Cliff shot provided by Cliff at mile 17. Erik convinced me to use the Mint Chocolate Chip Cliff bars which have caffeine and I also took a Mocha Cliff shot which has caffeine. 

There’s a lot of discussion about whether a given marathon course is fast or not. I haven’t read what others say, but I decided Twin Cities is a fast marathon because the cheering is phenomenal! When I ran the Montreal Marathon there were a few pockets popular with spectators, but the Twin Cities Marathon course is almost completely lined with spectators on both sides of the course. There were only a few sections probably adding up to less than 2 miles totally void of spectators. This is honestly largely why I wanted to run Twin Cities.

So mostly the miles flew by as I was comfortably nose breathing, running well under 9 minute miles, and every once in awhile getting choked up about all the people out cheering me on. Around 10 km I realized, compared to ski racing, there were a lot of women in this race. 

My Garmin watch had unfortunately lost some charge overnight so I knew it wouldn’t get me through the whole marathon. I was kind of bummed about this but tried to get over it. I knew when I finished the marathon I wanted instant feedback on my finishing time but also knew the clock at the finish would be based off the elite gun time so fortunately early on in the race I began paying attention to the difference on the clocks at the 5 km, 10 km and half marathon compared to my watch. I learned the difference was a little more than 7 minutes.

I came through 13.1 miles around 1:54. I did the math- if I kept up my pace that was a 3:48 marathon. I figured I might not actually negative split like I wanted to do. I kept running strong and realized there was quite a lot of attrition going on around me. I was passing people constantly. As I crested the bridge over Hiawatha Avenue my friends, dressed in cow costumes, were cheering for me. My friend Jeff (who is trying to run a sub 2:40 marathon next week at Chicago) yelled “don’t you wish you were biking” but I responded with “I hate biking.” I’d actually rather run a hill any day than bike a hill!

I kept passing a lot of people. I was pretty much in the zone. My old friend Dave from college was biking alongside and yelled “run faster” to me but I thought “seriously, I’m passing all these people and NOT YET.” Around mile 18 I picked up the pace a bit and could no longer breathe from my nose. I ran the hills really strong. 

Then at mile 19, I hit the PAIN CAVE. I had felt really good on my 22 mile run and thought I might actually be able to make it through the whole marathon without any pain. But at mile 19 my right lateral hip started to hurt. I had felt this pain a few weeks earlier at a very mild level but now the pain was intense each time my right leg hit the ground. It wasn’t too long before my left lateral hip also started hurting and I just had this band of pain around my hips and then my quadriceps got really sore and stiff. I just kept going and was still passing a lot of people. I hoped maybe the pain would go away in the upcoming hills but it didn’t. Around mile 20 I realized I was going for it- really going for it which meant a 30 minute PR or so. 

I was not prepared for this pain. This was like everything from the hips down just hurt. Fortunately, I think largely because I had not pushed myself from a cardiovascular standpoint until about mile 18, my lungs were ready to work hard. I couldn’t push too hard- I just kept running and passing people and didn’t mind if I was breathing a bit harder. I kept thinking and wanting to tell people “I’m not prepared for this pain.” This is what my friend Craig told me about (his PR marathon is 2:38). He said keep the breathing in check until the body hurts, then push it to get out of the pain sooner. 

The cows were cheering on the big hill coming up from the Lake Street Bridge. Unlike previously, I couldn’t really acknowledge their presence. I got somewhat tunnel vision. I had to because I was in so much pain. I just had to keep going. I thought about stopping to walk a few steps to see if that would get rid of the pain but I was afraid to stop. Afraid I wouldn’t have the same momentum when I started again. I focused on the next part of the course- the next big uphill before heading onto Summit. I was briefly nauseous on that hill but that quickly subsided. I focused on getting water at the next water stop. Once I got to Summit I focused on the next big cross street. I kept thinking, get to Cleveland, get to Fairview. As I ran by the street where I could head south to my house the cross street was lined with so many spectators I wouldn’t have been able to get through if I wanted. 

Then it was on to Snelling- the high point of the course. Then Hamline where my concentration was briefly distracted by the cheers of Kitty- a fellow skier and my colleague at work. At Hamline there was a band playing. Then Lexington. and I thought I’M NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN. My hips and legs hurt so bad. I was passing so many people. Some were walking. I was hoping for a clock at the Governor’s Mansion at mile 24 but there wasn’t one. Then it was a short time to Victoria but it took forever to get to Dale. My body held up on the short downhills in this stretch but the pain didn’t get better on the uphills. I tried to read the spectator signs, given some kids some high 5’s, anything to keep my mind off the pain. 

In this section, just after Lexington, I had the privilege of passing my good friend’s mom, who was also my high school ski coach. Karen is 60 now, she’s slowed a bit, was sidelined by injuries this year, but ten years ago, she was the 50 year old still chasing the sub 3 hour marathon!

At mile 25 my other high school ski coach was cheering. There was also a clock which read 3:42 so when I mentally subtracted 7 I got 3:35 and I realized I WAS GOING TO DO THIS. There was about a ½ mile where no one was cheering before I got to start heading down hill. LIkely because of the Black Lives Matter protest, there was a huge fence and few spectators in this area but I had gravity on my side. I sped up a bit but hurt so bad it was hard to run much faster.

The clock said 3:52 when I finished so my time was around 3:45. That was good enough for me. I was relieved when the hip pain immediately ameliorated with just walking. I took down 16 ounces of water but my stomach felt too full. The rest of the day I cycled between ravenous hunger and being full with eating a little. 

I was seriously sore afterwards. My quadriceps were the most sore- the left more than the right which is usually what happens. I think my soreness was from running many miles faster than usual and also because I never stopped. In all my long runs I stopped at water fountains or to go to the bathroom but I never stopped the whole race.

My official time was 3:44:46, an average of 8:35 minutes per mile, a PR by over 30 minutes. I finished 83rd of 666 women in my age class and 473 of 3810 female runners. Compared to the ski races I do, even the Birkie, this is soooo many people.

At mile 19, when I entered the PAIN CAVE and fully committed to the race I had no idea what pace I was keeping up. My body hurt and around this time my watch died. The only feedback I had was how fast I was going relative to the other runners and it at least seemed I was doing pretty well. Mtec timing provides some splits and indeed in the second half of the marathon while I was passed by 25 runners, I passed 1,195 runners. Moreover, I was able to run a negative split by about 3 minutes and my splits all got progressively faster; over the last two miles I averaged 8:20 miles. Overall it was a pretty perfect marathon. 
My running marathon hunger is satisfied; now it’s time to focus on ski season and chase some more goals.

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