Fresh from her success at the Montespertoli Half Marathon in Italy, the time had finally come for our contributor Sandra Khalil to tackle her biggest challenge yet. In June, everything that Sandra had been working towards was put to the test when she ran Grandma’s Marathon. In her hometown. On her birthday. With her children watching. Not too much pressure then!
Read on for Sandra’s Grandma’s Marathon event report to find out how she did. Looking super strong with hours of training behind her, the Chasing Zest team had a good feeling about this race…but was a watch malfunction going to put all of those training runs to waste? Find out below…
Grandma’s Marathon Event Report
Grandma’s Marathon takes place in northern Minnesota, some 11,000 kilometers away from the hot, dusty dunes of Dubai. The point-to-point course starts in a tiny town called Two Harbors and follows scenic Highway 61 south along the shores of Lake Superior, until it ends in Duluth near Grandma’s Restaurant, the race’s namesake. Lauded for its flat, fast course, it attracts elites from around the world and has been listed as one of the top American races to grab a Boston Marathon qualifying time before the annual cutoff in September.
I grew up cheering on runners of Grandma’s Marathon every June as they made the final ten-kilometer stretch down the familiar streets of my hometown. As a Duluth native, the pride and energy that runs through our veins on race day, whether we are running or supporting, is palpable. Our little town of 85,000 becomes the stage for a world-class event for one blissful day every summer, and we embrace it with open hearts, clapping hands, and hoarse throats.
This year’s Grandma’s Marathon landed on my birthday, which I took as the perfect excuse to return to my hometown, where my love of running was born. I was intent on breaking 3:30 this year, which would mean shaving almost four minutes off my previous best time. I first ran Grandma’s 18 years ago, but it had only been in the past two years that I had gotten more serious about running, upping my training to five days per week and integrating speedwork into my weekly training.
Although the forecast promised rain, race day dawned dry with cotton candy clouds stretching across a tangerine sky. I dressed with haste, squeezing packets of energy gels into my shorts pockets and scarfing down my tried and true breakfast of champions: a peanut butter bagel and a banana. Despite the comforting familiarity of my pre-race routine, swirling doubts had gathered in my head like the morning clouds.
Learning from past mistakes
Six months prior, I had been gunning for a huge personal best in Beirut Marathon but had hit the wall at around 28 kilometers, forcing me to walk, limp, and cry myself to the finish line. In the excitement of the day, I had gone out too fast and hadn’t taken the unseasonably warm weather into account. The result was disastrous. It takes guts to toe that terribly thin line that separates success from failure, and I was ready to give it another go. But I had to race smart and controlled.
My race plan was simple: stick to 5:00 – 5:05 min/km for the first ten kilometers, 4:55 min/km until 20 kilometers, then stick to 4:50 min/km for as long as I could manage. In the starting pen, the crowd of anxious runners shifted and groaned like a herd of cattle waiting to be put out to pasture as the final minutes, then seconds ticked away. And just like that, we were off, taking the first few tentative strides of a race that we had each trained months for. With the hard work of training behind me, I felt excited and ready for the journey that lay ahead.
The first 30 kilometers of Grandma’s is flanked by the lush greenery that marks the north woods of Minnesota. Balsam fir, black spruce, eastern hemlocks, and jack pines: these were my childhood companions and long-lost friends. After Dubai’s desert landscape, their leaves danced and shifted even more brilliantly than I remembered, parting every now and then to offer a glimpse of a sparkling Lake Superior.
When technology lets you down…
I stuck religiously to my pacing plan, taking my foot off the gas the moment my pace dipped below 5:00 min/km. I was in the zone. Then, around eight kilometers, I glanced down to see that my Garmin had frozen. Then, just as spontaneously as it had died, it beeped back to life, picking up where it had left off. The problem was that I didn’t know just how long it had been gone – was it one minute, five minutes, or thirty seconds? In my panic, I couldn’t safely judge.
With my conservative start, I had been well behind the 3:35 pacing group. Should I ditch my original pacing plan and try to catch up with them instead, relying on their pacing instead of my nutty watch? I knew this was a huge risk: speeding up to catch them this early in the race could sap my legs of the juice they needed in the critical last ten kilometers, when I would have to push further ahead of them to catch my goal. With visions of my crash and burn in Beirut dancing in my head, I had a sobering moment of clarity. No. This wasn’t going to happen again. I would break 3:30. I would stick to my plan today.
With absolute focus on the pace at hand, I soldiered on. As the mile markers ticked by, I knew I was more or less on pace but wasn’t quite sure if I was still on track for a sub-3:30. Again I urged myself to relax and stay positive. At the halfway point, I pushed the pace up to 4:50 min/km, and it still felt good.
Bringing it home
At 30 kilometers, we entered Duluth and the crowds were waiting for us. The streets were lined on both sides with bands, support stations, and cheering. The crowds were deafening, the energy contagious. As I grabbed a cup of water, I noticed that my arms were covered in goosebumps. This is what I had come home for.
At 35 kilometers, I saw my kids looking out for me from their double-stroller, still in their pajamas. I wanted them to see a strong and relaxed mama, and their tiny cheers and expectant eyes helped me dig even deeper. When I started to struggle to cling to the pace, I broke the rest of the course down into small, manageable chunks, focusing on the task in front of me. At 40 kilometers, the will to stop was almost overwhelming. But I knew the pain I was feeling was nothing compared to how I would feel if I didn’t break 3:30.
A tense finish
With 100 meters to go, I glanced up at the finish line clock ahead of me and it read 3:31. Meanwhile, my Garmin read 3:25. Had I started more than a minute after the gun? Had my watch stopped for less than five minutes? Could I still break 3:30? My mind raced as I barreled across the finish line, falling to my knees in exhaustion, the smiling support staff eager to help me get back up on my feet.
Later, as I made my way through the thick crowds of elated runners, I found my dad, who had been tracking my progress online. He shouted with a smile, “3:27!”
It is only after failure that we can fully taste the sweet honey of success. The disappointment of Beirut Marathon left me with a fire in my belly to train harder and race smarter. And I did. But the joy of Grandma’s reminded me that this race wasn’t just a solitary effort. The familiar landscape, the faces in the crowd, the energy of the streets, these are the things that propelled me towards my own version of success.