Prepare yourselves; this is going to be a doozie.

On Saturday, June 22nd, Ashlie and I both ran Grandma’s Marathon, a mid-size point-to-point marathon starting in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and ending in downtown Duluth.  Both of us had high hopes for it; Ashlie had been training hard and was looking to knock some time off on her way to a Boston Qualifier, and I was using this as one final attempt at a sub-2:40 performance.

I made a pact with Ashlie, and with myself, then if I broke two hours and forty minutes, that I would retire from chasing marathon PRs and the intense training that goes along with it.  While I love the feeling that marathon training gives me; namely the strong, unstoppable sensation when you’re cruising along at low-six-minute pace two hours into a run and feel like you’re just floating, the truth is, those moments are rare and the training necessary for that is extremely demanding.  Averaging 10, 11, 12 miles a day does not leave one with much other time in the day, and except for those rare moments of euphoria during a great run, most of the time I was extremely fatigued and run-down.  So I was looking forward to stepping back and not taking my training so seriously.

My training started out spectacularly this spring.  In my first real race of the season, Johnny’s Running of the Green 5-miler in March, I ran one second slower than my personal best, which was set in the midst of an intense training block when I was in the best shape of my life.  I was able to run 6:00 or faster during my marathon pace workouts, and even “jogged” the New Orleans marathon in under three hours as a long training run.  My hopes were high, and I even flirted with the idea of shooting for 2:37 at Grandma’s.

Tearing it up at Johnny’s

Then, in April, disaster struck.  One day after an amazing 4x 2 mile workout, I came down with a sore throat and felt extremely run-down.  My legs experienced weird shooting pains, and I struggled to run four miles that day.  I took a few days easy, but that weekend, I had promised some friends to run the Seneca 7 race, a 77.7-mile relay with six other athletes around Seneca Lake.  It sounded fun, but my team was doing it “green,” meaning that we would be biking between the legs each of us was scheduled to run.  Those of you who know me, are well-acquainted with my feelings on biking.  I feel that bicycles are an infernal torture device invented solely to make runners miserable.  I ran well, but the biking destroyed me, and I actually ended up missing my third and final leg because I was unable to make it to the checkpoint in time.

The next day, I literally could not walk, and felt like I had gargled broken glass.  Again, I only ran easy the next week, but I had another race coming up one week later in the Flower City Half Marathon.  Originally shooting for 1:15, I knew that was out of the question.  Instead I opted to run it as a marathon pace workout, but on race day, I felt so awful that I couldn’t even hold that pace.  I finished in an abysmal 1:22 and felt like I had just raced a full marathon.

I eventually went to my doctor and was prescribed an antibiotic and a corticosteroid, which worked wonders.  Within a week of starting my dosage, I was able to resume normal training, although I had missed a full four weeks of workouts during the most intense stage of my training plan.  I was still in decent shape, although unable to hit the times I was running before Philadelphia (where I ran 2:40:58) or even Columbus (a 2:42:19).  Still, I tried to make the most of the time I had left, and get a good taper in so I wasn’t too fatigued from trying to fit in all my missed workouts.

By the time the marathon was less than two weeks away, however, my body was feeling beat up.  Not only had I resumed intense training, but Ashlie and I also started doing a lot of yardwork.  This doesn’t sound very taxing, but working the roto-tiller, lifting boulders, and bending down in the hot summer sun took their toll on me.  My hamstrings, especially, were tighter than I could ever remember.  I stretched, used my foam roller and my Stick, and still felt wound tighter than a piano wire.

I visited my massage therapist, Debbie Fenton at Canalside Therapeutic Massage, and after 90 minutes of near-agony, my legs finally felt better, but still much tighter than they would normally feel after such a session.  I was starting to get worried.  I even bagged my last tune-up workout, which was only supposed to be a couple miles at marathon pace, because my legs felt so bad.

Adding to my concern was the fact that I was in Madison, WI for training the week preceding the marathon, and the weather was hot and humid.  I don’t run well in heat, preferring cool to cold temperatures.  I was nervous that race day would be a repeat of a few years ago at Grandma’s when it was 80 degrees at the start.  Luckily, by the time I met Ashlie in Duluth, it had cooled to mid-50s and foggy.  The coolest part about meeting Ashlie there was the fact that Meb Keflezighi was on her flight, and I got to meet him and talk to him for a few minutes!  I wished him luck in the USA Half Marathon Championships, held on the half marathon course at Grandma’s, and he wished us good luck as well.

I met an Olympic silver medalist!

Race day came and the weather was almost perfect: 50 degrees and foggy.  The fog made for lots of humidity, but it was chilly enough that it wasn’t muggy.  Ashlie and I woke up at 5:00am to catch the bus to the starting line.  I ate two Clif Bars about 45 minutes apart, hoping that would provide me with enough energy without making me feel full.  We stood around for a bit, and then I decided I was going to get focused and jog around a bit to warm up.  I bade Ashlie farewell and jogged for a few minutes.  I told myself that if I was going to run under 2:40, that it was going to hurt like hell, and I better just prepare for a world of pain.  I resolved myself to gutting it out, because I wasn’t going to sacrifice all the training I did, not only this season, but for the past seven years or however long I’ve been running marathons.

I found a spot near the starting line and found some other guys who were looking to run 6-flat pace.  I took some deep breaths, visualized myself crossing the finish line with a 2:39, and hoped that my training was enough.  The gun went off, and I started running.

This is what I look like while running

Immediately, I settled into a low-six-minute pace, feeling good.  Some of the guys I wanted to run with took off a little too quickly for my tastes, so I spent the first mile or so bouncing between groups of people, looking for someone to run with.  The first mile started out on a slight uphill, but this early in the race, I didn’t even notice it.  I settled into a pack of four or five guys and put the cruise control on.  Mile 1 split: 6:02 (2:38:11 pace).

Still running.  Looking haggard.

Two of the guys from my pack set off at 5:50 pace, so I hung back with a few other dudes, including a guy in a yellow jersey named Stuart.  He was from the UK, and like me wanted to run between 6:00 and 6:05 pace.  He and I ran together for much of the rest of the race.  The first 20 miles of this course are gently rolling hills, and we worked together to cruise down the inclines and ease up the slopes.  We had a couple sub-6 mile splits, but by and large were averaging 6:01 pace.  Two elite women hung with us for several miles, but dropped off shortly before the half.

No idea if this is from halfway.  Let’s assume it is.

I hit the half-marathon checkpoint in 1:18:58, more or less what I was hoping for.  Around this point, though, my bladder started to feel rather full.  I had peed twice while waiting for the race to start, but apparently was hydrated enough to have to relieve myself again.  I knew that stopping to use one of the many port-a-potties along the course might take just long enough to prevent me from reaching my goal, so I tried to hold it.  I made it two more miles before the urge was too great.  (Ryan, Dave, and anyone else who has run with me in the past knows how I have urgency issues).  I knew what I had to do.  In hushed tones, I told my trusty sidekick Stuart that I had to pee but was not going to be stopping.  I don’t think he understood at first, but when I said in no uncertain terms, “I am going to pee myself,” he gave me a wide berth.  I waited until there weren’t many people around and just let it go.  Sweet, warm relief washed over me.  Wait, no, that was my own urine.  But it felt great, and I swear that I lost a few pounds too!

Not peeing myself

At mile 19, there was a slight incline, and I was actually still feeling good.  I decided to surge a bit to see how I felt.  I split a 5:58, but was definitely fatigued by the time I reached the summit.  Sadly, Stuart was no longer with me at the top of the hill.  The next mile was a bit slower as I recouped in 6:11, but then the terrain flattened out again and I picked it up to a 6:07 and a 6:02 for the 21st and 22nd mile.  Right after the 22nd mile marker is the infamous “Lemon Drop Hill,” which was spoken about with the same mixture of awe and fear that Heartbreak Hill warrants.  I barely noticed it.  As I was running down the other side, two guys passed me going at a pretty good clip, and I hung on to them for dear life.  The 23rd mile was a 6:10 due to the small incline, but latching onto the two guys dragged me to a 6:04 24th mile.

I really don’t remember running by that ship

It was at this point that I realized that barring a major disaster, I was going to break 2:40.  I got a little goosebumpy, but told myself to run smart and controlled as a lot can happen in 2.2 miles.  I ran mile 25 in 6:09, but one of the guys put a gap on me.  As I came within one mile of the finish, I was still feeling very strong, although my quads were screaming at me with every step.  Riding the wave of adrenaline and euphoria, I ran the last full mile in 6:05, and was somehow able to find another gear and run the final 0.2 mile in 5:39 pace!

So close!
Even closer!

I crossed the finish line with a gun time of 2:39:11.  Words cannot express the emotions I felt.  Even though pure exhaustion threatened to buckle my legs, the joy of finally reaching this momentous goal kept me upright.  I stumbled my way through the finishing chute, half-wheezing, half-weeping from the effort and the emotion.  After all these years, and all these miles, I have finally achieved what I honestly only somewhat thought possible.  I know this whole blog post sounds like a huge brag-fest, but honestly, this has been my life’s goal for at least five years.  If you had told me even a few years ago that I could run 6:05 pace for 26.2 miles, I would not have believed it.


To put things into perspective, this is 10 seconds per mile faster than my high school 5K PR pace, and just a few seconds per mile slower than my college 5-mile PR.  Until 2010, this was my 10K PR pace, and in college, I struggled to run even two miles at this pace.  Truly, this race exemplifies how hard work and perseverance can pay off.  Sure, I might have been almost half an hour behind the race winner, but I have transformed from a back-of-the-pack, 20-minute 5Ker to running a fairly respectable time in the marathon.  I’d like to consider myself a more pedestrian Brian Sell, who was barely a 10-minute 2-miler in high school, and who qualified for the Beijing Olympic marathon by running 2:11 for third in the US Olympic Marathon Trials.  Subtract a minute per mile from all of his races, and there I am.  I hope that my anecdotal evidence gives inspiration to a few of you out there.  I’m no Olympian, but I have sure come a long way from where I was, simply by wanting it badly enough to work for it.  Thanks for reading.

Strava Data Here

Special thanks to:

My wife Ashlie for putting up with me these past few years in my quest for this time.  She also ran an awesome race herself for a new PR of 3:55:01!
Debbie Fenton at Canalside Therapeutic Massage
Dave Rappleyea and Jeff Bigham for pacing me in many of my workouts
Roadkill Racing for letting me run in such a sweet jersey and for such a great team

Categories: Matt's Blog


just another runner · February 9, 2014 at 9:35 pm


Review Link · July 21, 2014 at 8:25 am

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