FREE SPEECH ZONE | Grandma’s Marathon: Running until it hurts


This next weekend will be marked by my favorite athletic event of the year, far surpassing the significance of the Superbowl is Duluth, Minnesota’s annual Grandma’s Marathon. It is only fair that I mention that I am partial to this event having participated in the 29th and 30th running. Last year was the 33rd and I went with my family to cheer on my mom who was running Grandma’s for her third time.

The best thing about a marathon is that it attracts all types of people. There are visitors from Russia and Nigeria who come only to win, and then there are people like me, just hoping to finish with dignity.

I immediately recognized the stark difference between myself, and my running friends and these people with narrow faces, sharp features and intense stares. They peppered the convention center preceding the race, as we Stefoneks arrived to pick up Mom’s race packet with her bib number, magnetic shoe tracker (how they keep track of your time).

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Grandma’s Marathon is a bizarrely enjoyable experience and just the kind of challenge that breaks up the monotony of a year and reminds a person of his or her potential. This last point deems reinforcing, the reason for all the excitement, is that after you finish a marathon, you never look at life the same-you are abundantly aware of your own potential, and nothing is completely out of reach. There may still be things in this world that you prefer not to sacrifice, or ideas that you don’t feel worth the investment, but nothing is impossible.

When I first ran, I was stressed and afraid taking the shuttle from the hotel to the starting line. The only thing that was being talked about by the runners that morning was a Gatorade commercial that ran constantly and showed an Iron Man competitor who fell apart mere yards from the finish line. It’s one of the most pathetic sights in the world, a person with unquestionable drive who has devoted thousands of hours of their life to excelling in a single race, only to have their nervous system shut down within sight of their goal. The victim’s eyes will glaze over, the weak progress being made will devolve into something less graceful than a drunken stagger, and the person will be able to balance out a few last desperate steps in random directions before collapsing in a mass of exhausted futility.

In the van on the way to the starting line, we all agreed that we would not be greedy–we just wanted to finish. Then it was brought up that it is common for a marathon runner to crap their pants, not wanting to lose a second to a bathroom break, or more accurately, we all wanted to finish with dignity.

At the starting line the first, and most unexpected wave of satisfaction comes. The life of a runner in training often feels like little more than an unending series of denied invitations and weak justifications. Waiting for the race to begin you look around and see thousands of other people just like you–people who have turned down just as many happy hours, grudgingly gone home early from however many wonderful parties, and put up with just as many half-assed compliments from friends and co-workers-“Ten miles? Well, I couldn’t do that, have fun.” Right now, you know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you for wanting to be here-you’re elite, but you’re not alone.

As the race begins, music is pumped through loudspeakers above in the distance-The Imperial March from Star Wars (I have mixed feelings about that), then Chariots of Fire comes through, and for the first time ever, the song isn’t a cliché-it just might make you tear up a little. But there’s no time for that because the crowd is dispersing and it’s time to hit the road.

For the first several miles, it’s a pleasure to enjoy the scenery and all types of people. Being of partial Scandinavian blood it was painful to pass by kind folks with offers of free coffee and bars (eventually one or the other would wreak havoc with your stomach, nullifying all your efforts). I believe it was about mile 5 that I passed avid fan Garth Vader. He was dressed in a green Darth Vader costume, and bounced on a mini-tramp to the rhythm of the Garth Brooks songs blasting from his boom box. The following year he was dressed as Harry Potter with a rainbow wig.

Around mile 10 I became abundantly aware that it was getting harder and was remembered some advice from experience in regards to perspective:  20 miles is half-way. But as it gets harder an amazing thing happens, you feel the cheers push you along. Whether you want to consider it selfish pride for not wanting to look weak passing a crowd, or getting energized by the positive energy from the crowd (I think the latter); encouraging strangers have never meant so much. It doesn’t even matter if they’re cheering for the person running next to you. By the end of the race you will be cheered personally by a stranger:  “33-66, you’re looking good!”

My older sister received the best cheer one year:  “Good training!”

It didn’t matter that the old guy who yelled it couldn’t verify his facts, but he was right, and Nicole loved him for it.

Mile 20 is personally fateful. I found out that at that distance, no matter what training I had done, I’m going to remember that I’m asthmatic. The first year, when that happened, I was genuinely scared for a brief moment. But there are scores of runners with their own token conditions, and when they rear their head, there’s nothing to do but to back off to a brisk walk, if that, take some deep breaths, and be careful. If you feel better-so be it, and game on again, if not-that’s what the regularly spaced medic tents and running ambulances are for. But it should never be forgotten that foolish thoughts regularly kill people in this sport.

Mile 22 is the great insult of Grandma’s Marathon. A quarter-mile of a gentle incline that is likely to completely break your spirits-Lemon Drop Hill. It is completely unfair for something so painful to have an adorably delicious title. Just keep going.

At Mile 24 as I came into the city of Duluth, cheering helped, but there was only so much it could do. As I pass the Electric Fetus I think, I could be shopping for Jeff Buckley CDs and an Edgar Allen Poe action figure-why am I doing this?

My body started really giving out, as I walked the chills came over me despite the temperature in the 70s.

But I notice a middle-aged guy with a cheese t-shirt and a limp, and he’s passing me. I don’t know what my time is going to be, but I am not getting beat by THAT guy!

I pick up the pace and gain 20 or 30 yards on him and back off again. Then I look back, and he’s gaining on me again! Shame is a fantastic motivator.

About Mile 25 you are almost guaranteed to think that you are approaching the finish line. This is a lie. There is a 90 degree turn. DAMMIT! THIS NEVER ENDS!

This year the woman who was in line to place in third blacked out with 100 feet to go. My mom wasn’t in the top 10, but she beat at least one competitive runner. There are microscopic increments between possible winning and not finishing. Hence the phrase:  this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon-it’s meaningless if you burn out before the end, there’s a point-of-no-return that no amount of will power can save you from.

I did not hear my name called either time that I finished. I just picked up the pace a little bit for the last 30 yards and had just enough energy to do a little jump kick across the finish line.

Thank you always to the Grandma’s Marathon volunteers. They are the best (as I understand among many marathons). They take care of you. They put your medal on you and put the foil blanket around your shoulders and herd you to the hitching post to remove the time chip from your shoe. They won’t even let you bend over to take it off. They have you lean on the fence while they lift up your foot for you, like you were a horse, and untie and re-tie your shoe for you. God bless them.

At this point it is completely likely and acceptable that you will have an urge to throw up from possible over-hydration. The free beer that may have carried you to the end is not so inviting. You just want to drink water and not move. And that’s o.k. because you finished.

For the next two weeks anything is justifiable. Want to eat cheesecake for breakfast? Go ahead, you ran a marathon! It is also justifiable to wear your marathon t-shirt and medal through the rest of the weekend as well as one full day of work. Some may think this conceited, but they don’t know what you know. The day you finish that first marathon on your life is changed forever. You know what you are capable of. There is no reason to ever again doubt your potential.