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3:59:27 (06/21/2006)
By Brian P. Heilman

Sixteen weeks, four hundred miles, two triathlons and one sleepless night after sending in my registration check in February, I ran in Grandma's Marathon last Saturday. It was my first marathon, and the latest in a series of great crossings-off on my mental list of Must Dos.

I had trained well, running nearly seventy snow-covered, rain-soaked, and/or sun-burnt laps of Lake Winona, in addition to participating in various triathlons and half-marathons in the area. My months of hard work now in the past, I expected to spend the weekend in Duluth basking in the glory of accomplishment.

The weather gods had a different plan, apparently, as the heat and humidity caused race officials to wave the black flags of severe health risk for the first time in the thirty-year history of Grandma's. Sure, I had my share of glory, but not before doing combat with the burning sun and my protesting quadriceps.

I'll start at the start, literally. I strode into the start line chute, perfectly stretched and hydrated, right as two fighter jets tore an awe-inspiring slash through the sky. Through the lingering fog, I spotted red and yellow balloons marking the place where I needed to line up, among others hoping to finish in about four hours.

I squeezed through the crowd of 7,000, singing along to the national anthem and rubbing shoulders with citizens of 34 countries and 49 states. I found a suitable place with others of my skill level and anxiety, and waited for the gun.

Then, the most beautiful thing happened: the race started. We all stood still, two hundred feet back from the start line, watching a sea of bobbing heads and torsos. Then we walked, all of us, and within a couple minutes joined the dedicated mass of bobbers. The marathon was underway.

By mile two, I was dripping sweat onto my shoes. I remember watching it fall from my nose to the ground, cursing the wall of water that chose to descend upon Duluth on my morning. Nonetheless, I burned. I passed dozens of racers, placed myself on a three-hour, fifty-minute pace, and found my rhythm.

For the first few miles, race supporters were sparse, but soon enough I was running past marching bands, ad-libbing fiddlers, high-fiving grade-schoolers, and dancing men dressed like grandmas. With dense fog shrouding Lake Superior, the rural Duluthians must have decided to create their own racecourse eye candy. I didn't mind.

The fog lifted by mile eight, and searing sunlight took its place. The wall of water had become a sauna, it seemed, and through miles eleven, thirteen and fifteen, I guzzled water and sports drinks. I grabbed ice cubes from volunteers and held them in my hands, I darted to where fans had rigged hoses to spray on the runners, I ran in the elusive shade " anything to stay cool.

It didn't work. Still I kept going. That's the secret of distance running, I've found: you just don't stop.

Mile 18 gave me my first real test, as the heat sapped my energy and I felt a rumble of hunger. I trudged up a small hill, slowing my pace a little and waiting for a second wind. It came. I pushed myself back to pace, knowing I had just a lap-and-a-half of Lake Winona before the finish line.

At the city limits of Duluth, the power of the moment took control of me completely. There was a huge crowd amassed as we entered the city streets, shouting inspirational messages and barracking complete strangers. A surge of pure emotion moved through my entire body, and a couple tears joined the beads of sweat still pouring onto my shoes. They were cheering for me.

Perhaps it was too early to feel such exhilaration, for by mile 22 it had faded along with the strength in my legs. After striding down Lemon Drop Hill, my quadriceps gave out. It felt like I was tearing muscle with every step. I assured myself that my legs were pistons, that the pain would go away soon, but my body disagreed. It had had enough.

I knew that friends were waiting to cheer for me at mile 24, and that the distance separating me from a chair and free massage was a measly five kilometer race. But there's a difference between knowing and doing, I found. The pain was intense, and I began walking through the water stations, praying on a third wind that would never come.

The only way to make it was to trick my body, but how? I reverted to an old goal, a number that had been floating in my mind since my first run in February. Four hours. I knew that my fast pace throughout the race had left me a lot of cushion time. I could work very slowly and still break four hours.

I know that the marathon route runs past the famous Duluth Harbor Bridge, the William A. Irvin freightliner museum, and other downtown attractions, but the only thing I remember from the last three miles of the course is the pain.

At the final turn, with the finish line two hundred feet away, I caught sight of the race clock and saw that it was just past four hours. I had missed my goal, but no! I had waited a minute or two before actually starting, as the bobbing crowds took off ahead of me, and my chip-timer didn't start until I actually crossed the start line. I made a final dash to the finish, fear and desperation driving my dying legs, and crossed as the race clock hit 4:01:30.

I sat, ate, slept, and spent the night worrying that I had missed my target by mere seconds. A sense of relief came upon my body, but not my brain. Had I spent enough time marveling at the bobbing heads to keep my time under four hours, or had I failed my February dreams by a few heartbeats?

Twenty-four hours after finishing, my sense of accomplishment finally arrived. The morning newspaper listed my time at three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and twenty-seven seconds. I had escaped personal shame by 33 seconds.

It was an incredible experience, one that took my mind and body into uncharted territories. My thighs still ache, but like all great crossings-off, this one left my Must Do list longer than before. I'll soon be registering for an October marathon. I think I can break three hours fifty. 


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