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Minneapolis Marathon, June 3, 2012

On Memorial Day weekend, most people like to get away and have a good time. Me, too.

The Minneapolis Marathon is a relatively new race that takes advantage of Minneapolis’s Mississippi River trails and parks. For me, it was a spring alternative to Grandma’s in Duluth (way too expensive) and Stillwater (recently defunct).  I had signed up to see how Team Ortho’s race organizing skills stacked up against my beloved Twin Cities in Motion and to test myself in a long race. I was not happy with my place finish at Wildflower and wanted to improve that showing substantially. My confidence had been shaken pretty hard.

Team Ortho had become competition for Twin Cities in Motion and had drawn great participation in its St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween races. Ortho specialized in events that drew more social, younger runners. Ortho’s Minneapolis Marathon scored a great weekend late in the spring and convinced runners to switch over to it from Grandma’s based upon its superior convenience and greatly reduced expense relative to Grandma’s, a race plagued in recent years by a reputation for gouging runners with expensive room rates, long minimum stays and high meal prices. I wanted to gauge for myself the quality of a Team Ortho event. I also wanted to see the Mississippi River-centric course. While the Twin Cities Marathon runs for a few miles on both the west and east sides of the Mississippi, those river vistas are relatively underutilized in Twin Cities area road races and are spectacularly beautiful.

The race began near the old Northwestern Railroad Depot in downtown Minneapolis on a bright, clear and pleasant morning. It felt like it was in the mid-60’s.

I was surprised to see only about 900 people line up. I had expected more people to join us in the chute, which appeared large enough for ten times that number. I knew, however, that an hour later, half marathon runners would line up in the same spot and share much of the same course as the marathon.

I stood with a few guys who looked like they would run reasonably well. The chatter was relaxed because it felt like a really casual outing with just a few of us in attendance.

Off we went through downtown, by the Guthrie Theater and into the Mississippi River valley. It was cool and shady and I fell into a good rhythm. All systems go. And that was a problem. Apparently, my morning routine had not been entirely completed and I needed to duck into a construction site just off the course. I slid around in the mud of a freshly excavated site for a reasonably quick stop.

Back on the course, I regained lost spots pretty quickly. Everything was going fine. Again, that was a problem and I found my way to a park porta potty. This time, regaining my position in the field was a bit more difficult.

I ran on, feeling as though my troubles were completely behind me. And they were, with yet another porta potty opportunity. This time, it took a very long time to make my way back into the field. Some of the runners with whom I had run before my bathroom breaks were nowhere to be found. Others were within sight but impossible to reel in.

We ran up and out of the river valley and into a park where I saw one of Katie’s old teachers. We ran back down into the woods of the Fort Snelling park and onto a gravel loop that ultimately turned us back up the course. The originally laid out course was pretty flat but flooding on Pike Island required a last minute change that necessitated a very steep climb toward a vintage Fort Snelling building (so much for a fast time!), then onto a bike path parallel to the Crosstown expressway. After passing me, I heard one cyclist say to his buddy, “There are some pretty lean machines out here this morning.” I’m sure that he had no idea how much heavier I had been only a couple of hours before.

The course looped around the park where I had seen Katie’s former teacher. For a few miles, the marathoners ran on a part of the course beyond that shared with the half marathoners. Then, a coned section of the course appeared with the half marathon turnaround and a lane reserved for returning marathoners. That “sane lane” was a terrific help because that lane kept some of the slower half marathoners out of the path of faster returning marathoners.

All seemed in good order. I gave a little thought to the math to judge how well I might blend into the half marathoners on the course with me at that time. They had started one hour later than I and were half way through their event. I had started an hour earlier and was 3/4 of the way through my event. I am not particularly mathematically inclined but I figured that the half marathoners would be somewhat slower and I felt very grateful for the sane lane. Then the sane lane ended. Ibegan to bob and weave through a sea of half marathoners. I soon regretted finding myself in the midst of the Team Ortho events’ “social running set,” many of whom wore headphones and could not hear my warning of “on your left” or “track.” Sometimes I had to squeeze into a small space beside the curb, slip between chatting runners or, other times, I needed to cross into oncoming foot traffic of half marathoners still on their way to the turnaround. Most of the half marathoners were very courteous and got out of the way, offering their encouragement. “Go marathoner.” Others were struck mute by their iPods and stayed in the way. Frustrating.

Coming down a hill and into the Mississippi River valley only a couple of miles from the finish, I was all business and began to see some of the guys I hadn’t seen since the earliest miles. I had paced with one guy for several miles at the start but had closed in with only a half mile left. I began looking for old guys, hoping that perhaps I could reel in any 50-54 year-olds still ahead of me.

The course made a sharp turn and ran 50 meters down a grassy incline to the finish. I was tired but felt that it had gone fine. I collected my finisher’s medal and began to walk up the hill toward the Guthrie Theater. My car was parked just beyond. Margy was in Amsterdam for work and Katie had not wanted to manage the logistics of following a race in an unfamiliar part of town. So I walked alone with time to think and no particular urgency. I did not decide anything or have any great thoughts. (53 years; still waiting.) I just enjoyed the clear blue sky and the fresh breeze off a freshly mown lawn beside the theater. I was glad to be done.

How did it feel to share a course with “social runners,” people who just wanted to have a nice run with their friends? What did they get out of that morning that I missed? What did I get that they did not feel? When I started to run, marathons were hard core and a three hour marathon was nothing to brag about. All the runners were “lean machines” and took no prisoners. Now young runners wore iPods and looked for races with nifty tee shirts and medals. Running for them was not a solitary pursuit only infrequently dotted with races during which they gave it their all. Instead, they ran together, chatted, laughed.

I had come to the Minneapolis Marathon in some part to redeem an unsatisfactory performance at Wildflower, where participants more generally shared my competitive attitude. I couldn’t help but contrast the styles and values applied to the races. Was this a test of fitness and spirit or a chance to share a laugh with buddies? I wasn’t sure that the approaches were completely opposed but they were not entirely reconcilable, either. Some people run fast, others slow. Some people run alone, others in packs. Some want to take everything around them in and leave the iPod at home. Others want the coccoon of familiar rhythms and melodies other than their own footsteps and breathing. How could it be that so many of us had run on the same course but had such different experiences? It wasn’t at all the same race.

I unlocked the car. It had been sitting in the sun. The heat inside felt good as I sat in the driver’s seat, started the car and headed for home.

Postscript: Several hours later, I learned that I had finished in 3:07:52, 18th of 880 total finishers, 16th among men and first among 39 men 50-54. I couldn’t kid myself; I had not won my age group at the Boston Marathon. But it’s always better to win your age group than not.

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