The sun was just starting to rise and here I was standing in the crowd of 1800 runners. Then the immortal words came over the loudspeakers “On your mark… get set… GO!”.
We all shuffled slowly toward the start line. First the elite runners, then the 3:05 pacer, then the 3:15 pacer and so on. I was standing near the 3:45 pacer and it took about a minute and a half to reach the start. I simultaneously turned on my RunKeeper phone app and started running. The first few streets were completely full of spectators cheering. The runners occupied one lane of traffic and I was pleased that there was more room to run than I thought there would be. We rounded the first corner and headed out of town. After the first mile, the spectators thinned out a bit. I noticed that there were a lot of conversations going on between the runners. People were talking about work, family, other marathons, etc. If it weren’t for all of the stomping feet, you might close your eyes and think that you were in a cafe. At mile three, the half-marathoners turned right to take the scenic route back toward town. We took a left and went toward the country-side. Later in the race, we would be back at this same intersection except then, we would turn right.
At that point, we were running on a paved path along a highway. As I passed mile 4, I recognized my wife and two daughters holding up homemade signs and cheering. I yelled and gave a fist-pump as I went by. I found out later that they had made the signs beforehand and hid them under the seat in the van. The second water station was near mile 5, just before a descent into a small river valley. I drank some water then squirted gel all over my shirt and left hand. I managed to eat about half of it but I couldn’t put my left glove back on. After crossing the river, we began the largest hill climb of the entire marathon. I and everyone else around the 3:45 pacer keep running strong all the way up. The view was typical, flat Minnesota farmland until we reached another small river valley at 7 miles. There was a water station at the bottom so I grabbed my second cup of water. At mile 9, I ate another gel and grabbed another water at a station. Without spilling this time. We approached an intersection where a saw my family cheering again with a different group of signs. I cheered back and threw my gloves for them to take. After reaching 11 miles, I felt awesome. I was staying close to the 3:45 group and started to think that I might be able to run all day at this pace. It was also interesting to hear all of the conversations still going on.
Just after the 12 mile flag, there was another water station and I went for Gatorade this time. Unfortunately, I had trouble swallowing it and started coughing. It was exhausting because I couldn’t catch my breathe while I was running. I just spit whatever I had left in my mouth and tried to get my breathing back to normal. After a quarter mile, I was back to normal. Things began to look familiar since we were back in town and near the same road the we ran down at the beginning. After a few more turns, we had finished the first half and were going down the same road. I even recognized a few of the groups of spectators from earlier. The weather had changed dramatically in the 2 hours that we were away. It was about 15 degrees warmer and there was a powerful wind blasting into us head-on. The pacer kept running strong but the conditions were slowing me down. I noticed a few others being affected by it as well. I reached a water station at 15 miles and walked through it as I drank and ate another gel. I watched the 3:45 pacer disappear into the distance but I was still easily on pace to finish in well under 4 hours.
Upon reaching the intersection where the full and half marathoners split up earlier, I got to turn right this time. The wind was no longer a problem and it felt good to run again. My speed had slowed a bit but I was still running strong just seconds behind the 3:50 pacer. My family appeared at mile 17 and they noticed that I wasn’t in the group I was running with earlier. They cheered and I gave one of my signature fist-pumps to let them know that I was still doing fine. A long downhill started near mile 18 which lasted for almost two miles. I was running even slower now and was getting concerned about hitting my goal of 4 hours.
Somewhere just after mile 19, I was running on a paved path when the calf muscles in both legs suddenly cramped up simultaneously. It was all I could do to get off the trail without falling down. Movement of any kind seemed to send them into a cramp so I just stood still for a minute or so. Even bending down triggered them. Eventually, I was able to massage them a little a do a few stretches. They felt okay again so I walked a little before starting to run again. After about 100 yards of running, they cramped up once again. I repeated the same routine over and over before I realized that I had stashed 3 salt pills in my belt. My plan was to take one at 10, 15 and 20 miles but I forgot. I swallowed one and washed it down with the trace of water left in the bottle I brought with. Onward I pressed with the run-cramp-stretch-walk-repeat routine. Somewhere around 22 miles, I came upon a water station and took a second salt tablet.
As I entered the downtown area of Mankato, a water station was offering orange slices so I stopped and ate one as well as more water. At around 23 miles, the course enters a big loop that is about 2.5 miles around. As you enter, you pass the runners who are exiting the loop. In fact, most of the time that you are going around the loop, you can see the runners running the opposite direction on the other side. It gives you the impression that all you have to do is go down a street, turn to the right and come back again on the other side. Nope. The road takes two cruel turns that take you in the opposite direction form what you expect. Eventually, you reach an area called Sibley Park which had a restroom right off the path. Just in time. While there I was able to drink three 8oz. bottles of water. Once I got back out on the path, I noticed that the 24 mile flag was about 50 feet away. I jogged slowly past it and made a turn to the right. I was finally on my way out of the loop. There was one final hill to climb but I had to walk up. At the top were a group of cheerleaders with pom-poms cheering for me and another gentleman walking up the hill. Once at the top, we both started running again. I began to notice that my legs weren’t cramping anymore.
Due to the fact that I hadn’t been able to run steadily for the past 5 miles, I actually had a surprising amount of energy for this late in the race. And since my legs had stopped cramping, I was actually running at a pretty decent pace again. I found myself in a strange position of being able to pass everyone in sight. I exited the loop, stopped at one last water station and turned to run down a large street which was the final stretch of the marathon. One woman even yelled out “Way to finish strong!”. The street had slight curve to the left and the finish line wasn’t visible until you were about two blocks away. When I saw it, I started running even faster but had to slow down about 50 feet away because there was a slower group in front of me. I looked for my family but couldn’t locate them in the crowd.
I crossed the line and gave one last fist-pump as i did. My time, 4:44. The first half took me 1:51 and the second half took 2:51. I was over my goal by 44 minutes but I was in the area set aside for the finishers. I finally found my family when they came running over to congratulate me. My calves were sore as hell, my feet were a little sore but not too bad, I had zero chafing issues, a fair amount of energy left and was really thirsty. Fortunately, Muscle Milk had a booth and were giving away free bottles. When I approached, a woman handed me two bottles. One banana and one chocolate. It would be tough to find a better thing to drink at that moment.
I also got my finisher’s t-shirt, had an official photo taken and got a bag of potato chips. My family and I sat down on a bench where I ate my snack and told them about the race. I noticed several runners really struggling. One fellow just seemed to be writhing on the ground in pain. One woman was leaning over a planter like she was getting sick. Lots of people were walking with severe limps. I slooooowly got up and stretched a bit more before we took a couple photos. It was time make our way to the car that was a couple blocks away. I put on my new t-shirt and we headed for a restaurant. It was my choice so I picked Chipotle. We headed back home afterward. My wife offered to drive this time.