The best laid plans of mice and marathoners…

Often go awry

There’s your one sentence summary of my race at Grandma’s and perhaps a reminder to all of us that not matter how much you prepare there will always be factors outside your control, and you have to learn to accept it.

SusanOnrocks

Deep eh? Well you have a lot of time to think when you are running 26.2 miles. Although some of those thoughts are not suitable to reprint here Winking smile. If you want a race report that tells you what to expect if you run Grandma’s check out my more official race report here. This post is a more personal tale of my 2016 race at Grandma’s to share with friends, family and fellow runners, and also a chance to me to look back at the race.

Today is Monday. Two days ago I ran Grandma’s marathon in Duluth Minnesota. A cool little town on the shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.That’s a picture of me admiring the lake on Friday, the day before the race. My goal was to finish a solid sub 3:50. That would mean a personal best, and it would also give me 5 minutes under my Boston qualifying time. Since the marathon was in June I had completed a long training plan, and I was running well. I had set a PR on a 5km, and a 10 mile race. I was running well on the track. I completed three 20 mile runs during my training. Physically and mentally I was ready.

The race I didn’t run

My alternate race was Ottawa race weekend, which turned out to be a rough weekend for a marathon. There were heat advisories in effect, not a good weekend to try and PR, race officials were asking runners to slow down and take care of themselves during the race. I ran the half marathon that weekend, and was thinking to myself how frustrated you would be if the Ottawa marathon was your goal race. (If I correctly recall my high school English, in literary terms that last sentence would be called foreshadowing)

Getting to Duluth

I landed at MSP (Sorry, I travel a lot so I refer to airports by their codes, MSP is Minneapolis) on time and met Karin (who would be running the half) by the gate. Christopher (Karin’s husband who would be running the full) was late so we passed the time until he landed, meeting a few other racers along the way, then picked up our rental and made our way to Duluth about two and a half hour drive. Along the way we checked the weather forecast for race day, chance of thunderstorm at 7 AM starting temperature of 16 degrees 26 by peak of day.  Hmmm not ideal, we could get a storm waiting for the race to start, but that could easily miss us.  A little warm, hopefully that will change!

Settling in

I was fortunate that Christopher and Karin went to college in Duluth and have run Grandma’s before. I couldn’t ask for better tour guides. Christopher sorted out the rental car, booked our accomodations and even sorted out our dinner reservations Friday night.

We stayed at the university of Minnesota Duluth residence.  I wasn’t too sure how I felt about sleeping in a door room with no AC, and shared showers and bathrooms down the hall. but it was actually a pretty great set up! I had an entire room to myself, it was quiet, everyone around was runners. I never had a wait for the shower, and there were some unexpected perks.

First of all there was a hospitality suite at the residence, which had junk food, pop, water, bananas, apples, oranges, bagels, jam, peanut butter, a toaster, course maps, postcards, even drawings by local schools kids welcoming us to the race!  I loved that!WP_20160617_14_44_09_Pro

There were also lounge areas, so Christoper, Karin and I were able to settle in with a laptop, bluetooth speaker and our junk food to psych ourselves up by watching Spirit of the Marathon. It’s possible our allergies may have kicked in from time to time. That movie sums up all the emotions, all the ups and downs of running marathons, and I love watching it the week before a race. (at the Chicago marathon do they have a small orchestra playing that theme music at the start?)

The day before the race

We went to the race expo early hoping to beat the crowds. Loved the truck with the names of all the runners printed on the side!

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Picked up our bibs and wandered around the expo picking up samples of chocolate milk, and looking for any must have t-shirts with clever running jokes. I almost picked up the “I run for wine” t-shirt. But finally settled on a fridge magnet, hat, pin, and a couple of laptop stickers. My laptop sticker says 26.2 Grandma’s marathon and I picked up one for Trevor that says 0.0 Grandma’s marathon Trevor still doesn’t understand this strange urge my family has to race Smile, but luckily he is still supportive of this shared insanity and is a tireless supported and spectator!

Christopher really enjoys meeting the celebrity runners in the race expo. We were practically stalking Shalayne Flanagan in Boston, and at Grandma’s it was Dick Beardsley who would likely be issuing the restraining order. He was speaking at 4 PM, so we figured we could come back then to talk to him after his presentation. As we were walking around the expo they announced “Dick Beardsley is inthe building at the North End of the expo”. Of course expo race PA systems are terrible so that was all we caught and we spent the next 20 minutes hunting through the expo, outside the expo, asking the info desk trying to figure out where he was. Just as we gave up they made another announcement. This time we listend carefully and caught the booth name “Essentia Health”. We went to what we thought was their booth, but no sign of Dick. But when we asked they pointed us down another hallway and there he was! We had walked past him 3 or 4 times and hand’t even noticed. It was so low key that hardly anyone had seen him! That worked out great because there were only two runners in front of us waiting to talk to him. He took his time and chatted with each runner and also dashed out to hug and chat some familiar faces walking by. When we finally reached him we had a good 3-5 minute chat, he signed our bibs and Christopher got a picture. All I can say after meeting him is Wow, what a great ambassador he is for the sport! He held the course record at Grandmas for 33 years! 2:09:37!

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Christopher had a PR on this course 3 years ago and warned me that the finish was a little misleading. 25 miles of the course is straight, but the last 1.2 miles winds through side streets and just as you see and hear the finish they turn you away down some road and loop you around a building then finally back to the finish. So we walked that last mile so I would know what to expect race day. We did find the 26 mile marker which made a great photo op! It was a gorgeous day, nice breeze, high of about 24 degrees or so, not too humid. Would have been a great race day! (there’s that foreshadowing again…)

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Food was cheap and easy to find. French toast at Perkins for breakfast Friday. Sandwiches for lunch at Erbert and Gerbert (handy to have friends who know the town). An early supper at Va Bene, a wonderful little Italian place overlooking the water that was completely ready for the rush of runners looking to carbo load.

By 8 PM we were well fed, rested and back at the dorm.  I checked the weather forecast one last time: chance of thunderstorms at 5 AM and 11 AM (hey that’s better we wont’ get soaked waiting at the start), starting temperature of 16 degrees and about 24 degrees by noon. Not cool, but manageable. I laid out all my race gear, set my alarm for 4:45 AM and was soon fast asleep.

Race day

My alarm woke me up, and I stumbled out of bed, slowly started to get into race mode. Body glide, compression sleeves, take a bite of my banana, have a sip of water, turn on my GPS to get a signal and so on.

Karin left earlier to catch the shuttle for the half marathon start which is at 6:15 AM. The marathon doesn’t start until 7:45.  Yeah I know the half starts before the full, weird eh? That’s because the half marathon runners start half way down the marathon course so they want the half marathon runners  off the course before the elite marathoners come through.

Christopher and I met at 5:30 and made our way to catch the shuttle. We were on the first bus, and soon we were trundling along, trying to distract ourselves so we wouldn’t think about how every mile covered by that bus we would soon be doing on foot!

A statue of Paul Bunyan marks the turnoff for the start. They dropped us off and we trundled down the road to the start area and foudn another photo op. Yup those are my the same stylish pre-race PJs I wore in Philly! I keep thinking they work because I can throw them out, but I keep throwing them in with the bag check, so there they are again! You can also just make out my fine work writing my name on my tank top with electrical tape. Apologies to my K2J folks, that tank top is my best hot weather tank top and I chose function over K2J fashion for this race.

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It was neat being amont the first buses and seeing such an empty start area. Is this what it is like for people in the first wave at Boston?

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We laid out our garbage bags on the grass and settled in. We put on our sunscreen, and generally took it easy. It wasn’t long before there were 15-30 minute waits for all those port-a-potties as you can see in the background. (See I did bring K2J gear to the race! Had to make sure I had at least one good K2J Photo op!)

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We did the mandatory last trip to the port-a-potty line and made our way to the stop. The temperature warning flag was green (low risk). We were good to go!

20160618_062029I had a mild panic when I got to the bag check because there was only one bin left for my bib number range and it was already overflowing. No sooner did I stuff my bag in they started to roll it away and bags were falling out.

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But no time to worry about that, time to find the 3:45 start point. No corrals here, just signs to indicate suggested starting points in the corral. For some reason all the pace bunnies were way down bythe front of the main start (they have a sub 2;25 start and then the everyone else start). In the end I had to fight my way down to the 3:45 bunny. I found at later that Christopher was at the 4:00 mark confused looking for his pacer along with many other runners, they didn’t know their pacer was at the front with mine.  This was my only real complaint with the race, whether that decision was made by the CliffBar pace team or the race we may never know but if you were trying to PR and planned to follow a pacer that could have thrown off your entire race…it also caused a lot of clogging near the start.

The announcer started gave us the 5 minute warning. “It’s a gorgeous 72 degrees out there right now, great day for a run”. I don’t speak Farenheit so I took his word for it (turns out that is apparently 22 in Canadian)

The race started, we slowly moved towards the start line. My GPS of course decided to go into power save mode, so I had to to restart finding my locataion again,but it was ready before I crossed the start. Let the race begin! I had my pace wrist band, my pace bunny, my belt wth gels and two water bottles I was ready!

1 km 5:20 pace – perfect exactly on track for 3:45

2 km 5:07 pace – well not surprising very crowded tough to keep up with the pace bunny

3 km 5:11, 4 km 5:06 – glad I brought water with me, first water stop isn’t until 3 miles

5 km 5:14 and the first water stop, the flag is now yellow (moderate heat risk) . ottawa race weekend I ran a half marathon with red flags, I can handle this. I dump water on my head.

6 km 5:20, 7 km 5:12, 8 km 5:14 – the pace bunny is going a little faster than I would like, but I’m okay, starting to get to know the other runners in the 3;45 pace group, still pretty crowded.

9 km 5:22, 10 km 5:14 – the first mat! I am about 90 seconds ahead of my goal time here, anyone tracking me online is thinking ‘ okay great Susan didn’t go out too fast in the first part of the race, sticking to her plan’

11 km 5:15, 12 km 5:26, 13 km 5:16 – wow there are way more hills on this course than I expected, this is not flat. Okay they aren’t really steep hills, but there do seem to be a lot of them

14 km 5:28 15 km 5:27 – you know given this race is along the water there isn’t much breeze, these darn trees are blocking the breeze from the water! Oh wait there’s an open bit, yeah that breeze can we have more of that?

16 km 5:29 17 km 5:43 – Why am I doing this. Marathons are stupid. I should just run half marathons. Yeah I am never running another marathon I mean seriously this sucks

18 km 5:34 – You know what Mr Pace bunny, you can go ahead, I’m okay back here.

19 km 5:40 – wait a second that’s a red flag (high risk) at the water station, maybe that’s why this seems so hard. Another runner comments that dunping water over her head has caused water to drip down her legs into her shoes.  Doh! Why did she have to say that, I hadn’t noticed my socks and shoes are completely soaked.

20 km 5:34, 21 km 5:46 – hey red balloons that means walk the water stops, dump ice in the sports bra, and take a sponge. These water stations are awesome! they have ice and sponges at every single stop. Oh look a timing mat, only a couple of minutes off my goal pace… bwahaha anyone tracking me online will still think I might have a personal best little do they know…

22 km 6:07, 23 km 5:46 – just get to the next yellow balloon (mile marker) then walk, just get to the next balloon then you can walk. I wonder if the 4:00 bunny will pass me and if so will Christopher be with him, if so good for Christopher.

24 km 6:11, 25 km 6:01 – okay big curve, cut the corner, why is no-one else cutting this corner it will save a good 100+ meters… oh wait they are all staying on the side of the road with shade. Didn’t think of that

26 km 5:34 – downhill yay! Oh look I can see the lift bridge at the finish line in the distance. Christopher warned me about that. Still got 16 km to go, that sucks.WP_20160617_10_09_34_Pro

27 km 5:57, 28 km 5:49, 29 km 6:43 – uhhh wait a second that was a black flag at the water station (extreme risk) are they going to close the course with me still out here?

30 km 6:35, 31 km 6:01 – then again if they close the course I could stop. Look there goes the 4:00 pace bunny, bye bye pace bunny.

32 km 6:18, 33 km 6:18 – what was that loud bang!?! Oh that is the blue balloon mile markers for the half marathon exploding in the heat. Oh look a timing mat, anyone tracking me online is going to look at this mat and say ‘whoa something went wrong on that stretch’

34 km 6:50, 35 km 6:03 – hey look, someone else from the 3:45 pace group – Hello Michelle shall we run walk this together? A volunteer hands me water and says “Go Susan you look great” I smile, pat her on the arm and say “ You lie so well”

36 km 8:23 – foot about to cramp, calf about to cramp, F**% thank you Michelle for walking with me, okay we can run again, no wait now Michelle has a cramp. Hey look orange slices and strawberries.

37 km 6:40, 38 km 7:24 – run walk run walk run walk, well slow jog walk really, hey look there is the restaurant we ate at last night. Look another pace band on the side of the road someone ripped off in disgust, tried to rip mine off but too much effort.

39 km 5:44 – wow awesome crowds on this stretch yelling “Go Susan” “Go Susan’s friend” thank you! So glad I put the tape on my shirt

40 km 6:34 – one last water station! Great crowds lots of cheering.

41 km 6:34 – Michelle says she is slowing me down (the idea that anyone could slow me down at this point is highly entertaining) and sends me on my way. I wonder if can get through the last mile without stopping… Hey look there is the one mile photo op, would it be rude to flip him the bird, cuz that’s pretty much all I want to do right now. Wouldn’t that be a great race photo?

42 km – S*(%#@ there is a hill here, that’s just cruel, use the arms, use the arms use the arms. There’s the 26 mile spot where we took our picture .2 miles to go, come on, use the arms, use the crowd, just keep moving, there’s the finish, oh f$@*& my calf is about to cramp up I am 100 meters from the finish line don’t let me collapse with a calf cramp now! Don’t let me be that runner who collapses and crawls across the finish line or has other runners helping them limp across

42.2 5:49 for that last km by the way – the finish line, once again I am sorely tempted to use my middle finger for my finish photo. The words going through my head in this photo are not suitable for younger viewers

WTF

It’s over! Thank god it’s over. That sucked. I don’t care what my time was, it’s over! Thank you I will take that medal and my finisher shirt. Wow this medal weighs a ton. All around me finishers are looking at each other and simply saying, glad that’s over! I mention I need salt and I need it now, he hands me a leftover salt tablet. Thank you sir yo uare my hero! Michelle appears behind me we hug briefly, it’s over. I stumble to the gear check, they find my bag, I stumble to the chocolate milk station I find some chips, I find some shade.

Recovery zone

Karin finds me, I ask about Christopher, he’s still out there. I lie immobile trying to stretch what I can, drink what I can, eat what I can. I text Karin, Christopher has crossed the 25 mile marker. I stumble towards the finisher shirt pick up. I see Christopher, one shared look says it all ‘who cares about the time today, we finished!’ . We hug in mutual exhaustion and I take him to Karin. The three of us take a group finisher photo with our medals. Karin takes care of Christopher getting him chocolate milk, then water as he just stands there. We both just had our worst ever marathon finishing times, and neither of us cares at all. Today was all about finishing without ending up in the med tent!

We head to the change tents (great concept! ladies and mens change tents at the finish line so you can get out of your soggy nasty race gear!). I discover I still have a sponge stuck in the back of my running bra. Christopher walks out of the tent clutching a blue piece of paper he was given at the finish, his drink ticket. Instead of the finisher shirt he has changed into a red shirt that says “I didn’t run this far to drink fizzy yellow beer”. Clearly our next destination is pre-determined.

I don’t drink beer, but I can get a Coke with my ticket, but the coke is luke warn just put it into the cooler. I’ll take a Sprite. We collapse a bit. I sit, Christopher is afraid if he sits on the ground he will never get up again. Lunch is proposed, after considerable struggle I managed to get to my feet. As we walk along, we spot the race car with the names, hey cool the half marathon names are on the other side of the car we just never realized it! Photo op for Karin!

20160618_134240We find a nearby restaurant. We order food. We have a booth, look I can lie down on the bench, that feels good.

We finish lunch, we walk towards the shuttle buses, we cross the race course and OMG there are runners coming in! Have they been out there this whole time!!! Cheer, clap, cheer some more! You are amazing! Wow!! Seriously! they look pretty good for people who have been on the course for about 6 hours in this heat!

Apparently it peaked at 78 F which is *only* 26 C, but it was also 80 % humidity and there was not a cloud in the sky. So trust me when I say it was hot. There was a running group from Tampa Florida in our dormitories. They were complaining about the heat as much as we were.

So no personal best, no Boston Qualifying time, all that training and preparation, but Zeus (or whichever god controls the weather) was not feeling kindly towards the runners today. 9500 runners registered in the marathon. 7500 finished. We don’t know how many started.

It may be my worst marathon finishing time to date (4:07:42 if you are curious) but I will wear my Grandma’s marathon jacket with pride! Done and done Smile I never want to run another marathon again!

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But… my time from the Philly marathon in November is a theoretical BQ . With the Ottawa and Grandma’s races being so hot maybe less people will have qualified and my time may get me in to Boston 2017, a chance to earn another Boston jacket, and my running group, K2J, was discussing trying Boston Big Sur next year, so just maybe… Damn it! here we go again… so when does the next K2J clinic start?

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Last but certainly not least a huge thank you and big hugs to Christopher and Karin, who suggested this race in the first place! Hey Christopher it took what 5 years? but we finally ran a marathon together! Let’s not wait 5 years for the next one.

Grandma’s marathon–Is it worth the trip?

Grandma’s marathon is a big race in a small town. 9,500 people registered for the marathon and about the same for the half marathon (which sells out fast). If you haven’t heard of it, you may want to add it to your bucket list.

WP_20160617_14_43_40_ProWhen is it? Late spring

On a Saturday in early June – So the weather could be a perfect cold and misty, a hypothermic cold and raining, or an exhausting hot and humid.

Where is it? Duluth!

It’s in Duluth, Minnesota. Where is that? It turns out Duluth is on the shore of Lake Superior about a two and a half hour drive from Minneapolis. Minneapolis is a major airport, so if you live too far away to drive, there are lots of flight options. From Minneapolis airport, you can take a shuttle bus or rent a car to get to Duluth. If you stay in recomended race accomodations  with shuttles, you can manage in Duluth without a car. The biggest advantage to renting a car is the ability to stop at Tobies. Tobies is a bakery in Hinckley (about half way between Duluth and Minneapolis.) Tobies is known for it’s cinnamon rolls and pies. home made donuts, baked breads, rolls, cookies, and more! After all one of the perks of running a marathon, you probably aren’t counting calories, so this is a great place to load up on indulgences.

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One of the first things you will see in the distance when you arrive in Duluth is the lift bridge. The lift bridge is a remarkable feat of engineering. Duluth is a shiping port and you get some big ships. Instead of the typical draw bridge, they have a lfit bridge that literally lifts the entire span of the bridge to make room for ships coming into port.  This is the same bridge you’ve seen on Grandma’s marathon website, race medals, and race gear. You have arrived at your race destination! You will learn to love and hate this bridge. It’s a great landmark for the finish line, in fact it’s such a great landmark you can see if miles and miles and miles away. It taunts you on the race course looming in the distance.

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Where to stay? Reliving your college years in a dorm perhaps?

Like all big races, there are recommended race hotels. If you want to stay at a hotel that is close to the finish, you want to stay in Canal Park. Any hotel in the Canal Park area is close to the lift bridge, the finish and race expo. The race expo is in the DECC (Duluth Entertainment and Convention Centre). Canal park also has bars and restaurants so you don’t have to go far to find food. Like all big races, hotels will book fast and expect hotels to jack up their rates on race weekend, so you will pay for the convenience. There is no point in trying to get a hotel near the start line. There is no parking at the start, and there is no drop off at the start. Everyone must go to the start using shuttle services (more on that later).

Grandma’s offers an interesting alternative to expensive hotel rooms. You can book a room at the college dorm! There are two bedroom appartments with their own kitchenette, and the standard small dorm rooms with two single beds. We stayed at the University of Minnesota Duluth residencces. We were slow making our reservation so we weren’t able to book one of the two bedroom residence rooms with its own kitchen. Instead we got the more traditional university dorm room with two beds, two desks, and a dresser. Bathrroms and showers down the hall. There is no air conditioning, tu you can open the windows to cool down if needed. It was hot the weekend we were there (more on that later) but I was still able to get a good night sleep. I never had to wait for a shower, and there were a few great advantages to staying at the dorm. The price was reasonable ($100 USD a night), you could get a shuttle bus to and from the expo area (which was also near a number of restaurants), there is also a shuttle directly from the dorms to the race start. 20160616_22050720160616_220513

The nicest surprise was the hospitality suite! There was a big room with race course maps, postcards, brochures, and more important bagels, fruit, water, soda, even junk food. I particularly liked the drawings on the tables by some local kids welcoming the runners! We could have completely skipped our grocery store run for pre-race food! The smaller dorm rooms are a little small (though bigger than some of the hotel rooms I have spent $300+ a night during Boston marathon weekend). A couple can stay in one comfortably, but if you are bunking with a friend, you are definitely going to be stepping over each others smelly sneakers.  There are also a number of lounge areas where you can hang out if you want a little more space to hang with fellow runners. In theory no alcohol is allowed in the common areas. We found the lounges a great place to chill and watch Spirit of the Marathon to get psyched for race day.

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The race expo – free chocolate milk, I’ll take that thank you!

WP_20160617_09_58_53_ProWe drove down to the DECC in Canal Park where they host the race expo. We got there early so no problem parking. The parking lots were getting pretty full by lunchtime, so if you are going later you may want to take the shuttle instead. The first thing you see in the expo hall is the setup for the spaghetti lunch & dinner. What a great setup! You can have your pasta dinner anytime during the day. So if you prefer to carbo load at lunch instead of supper, or you want a 3 PM dinner you can just wander in with your ticket, and tuck in! This also makes it easier to dine with a large group, so great for running groups travelling together to the race.

I did find it odd that you have to walk through the entire race expo to get to bib pick up. This made the narrow pathways through the race expo a little crowded. But once we fought our way to race packet pick up they were quick and efficient. Men’s kit pick up and women’s kit pick up are split up. If you happen to register for the 5km & half marathon challenge, look for the challenge kit pick up separate from the 5 km and half marathon pick up desks.

The race expo itself, was decent. If you forgot nipple guards, gels, or body glide, you can pick up what you need. If you want free samples (chocolate milk, Old Dutch cheese curds, hot sauce, granola) you will find those too. The usual “I run for wine” or “In my dreams I run like a Kenyan” shirts, stickers, and glasses. There is an impressive selection of official race gear as well, and not as expensive as I expected. There are Grandmas marathon sweatshirts, hoodies, pint glasses, magnets, pins, stickers, posters, jackets, hats, etc… I picked up a magnet, a 26.2 laptop sticker, a 0.0 laptop sticker for my husband the spectator, and a hat. My race partner picked up a nice hoodie with the course map emblazoned on the sleeve.

Mandatory photo ops – where is Dick Beardsley?

Make sure you take your picture at the car with the name of every single runner (marathon on one side, half marathon on the other) printed on the side.

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When we were walking the last mile of the course, we found the 26 mile marker on the road, which made for a great shot since the finish line wasn’t set up yet when we walked by.

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There will be runners speaking at the race expo. *The* runner to meet at Grandma’s marathon in particular is Dick Beardsley. Beardsley is known for his 1982 Duel in the Sun battle at Boston against Salazar. Beardsley was born just up the road from Duluth in Minneapolis, his course record 2:09:37 at Grandma’s stood for 33 years! This is his race! He is a fantastic ambassador for the sport and if you do get to meet him, he will always find time to chat. This means the line up moves slowly, but when you do finally meet him you will be glad you made the effort. He is usually one of the speakers, but listen carefully to announcements at the race expo. We managed to catch up with Beardsley at a booth in the expo, but because the announcements were hard to hear, and the booth stop wasn’t posted anywhere, there were very few runners waiting to meet him, chatting with him was a treat!

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All runners need to pose at the lift bridge either before or after the race!

The start area – great shuttles, no shade

There is no parking at the start, and there is no drop-off at the start. All runners and spectators must use shuttles! Sounds scary, but the fact is the shuttles are very organized. So just look up the shuttle schedule, head down at the appointed time and hop on your bus. It won’t be long until you see a statue of Paul Bunyan watching over the start.

 

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One of the really cool options is a train to the start! We were very tempted to take the train. You have bathrooms on the train, you can stay on the train a little longer if it’s raining to stay dry. But the train only holds 1000 people and it only leaves once, so we were concerned we might not get a seat. We also read that one year the train arrived a little late to the start making it a rush for runners to drop off their gear at the bag check and get to the start. So we chose to play it safe and use the shuttle buses instead, which worked perfectly. We hopped on the first shuttle and had lots of time to settle in at the start. I have never seen so many port-a-potties with so few runners. This must be what it is like for runners in Wave 1 at Boston. 20160618_062236The start area filled up quickly and it wasn’t long until you had the usualy port-a-potty lines.  For the record the train arrived in plenty of time for the runners on the train to disembark, drop off gear and get to the start this year. WP_20160618_06_50_01_Pro

They had lots of water available in the start area as well, but there really wasn’t any shelter or shade so pack appropriately! We had a sunny day so we didn’t need our garage bags to stay dry, but they were handy to sit on the grass still wet from dew. In 2015 they got hit with a downpour and there were a lot of wet runners (one hid in a port-a-potty to stay dry and was very unpopular when he was discovered).

The start – Where is my pacer?

We made our last port-a-potty run and headed to gear check and the start. The gear check is a clever set up, self service. A bunch of labeled bins on wheels. Just toss your bag into one of the bins labelled with your range of bib numbers. We screwed up and waited too long to drop off our bags. By the time I reached it, there was only one bin left labeled for my bib number range and it was already overflowing! I jammed my bag in as best as I could, and it was waiting for me at the finish line. My bad for waiting too long to drop off my bag. Waiting too long also makes getting to gear check a challenge since it is in the start chute, so lesson learned don’t wait until the last minute.

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They don’t have corrals which is a shame given the size of the race, but they do post signs suggesting where to line up for different finish times and most runners were respectful of those signs. I walked up to the 3:45 and looked around for my pace bunny. The Cliff Bar pace team was at Grandma’s and I had seen the pace bunnies arrive, including my 3;45 bunny but there was no sign of the pacer.  Then I realized almost ALL the pacers were standing much closer to the start, somewhere around the 3:15 mark perhaps? I though perhaps they would move back down the corral to where we were gathered, but they didn’t. I had to fight my way up through the crowd to my 4:15 bunny. I was lucky, I was close enough to see the pacers. Runners at the 4:00 and 4:15 mark never realized their pacers were so far ahead. This is my only real complaint about Grandma’s marathon weekend. They organization really was fantastic, but that was a terrible place to put the pacers and it caused a lot of frustration and bunching near the start.  I don’t know if that decision was made by the Cliff Bar pace team or by the race organizers, but I will certainly share that feedback in the race survey. We even chatted to the pacers at the expo and they never mentioned they were going to meet runners there. So if you plan to follow a pacer, ask where they will be at the start!

The course – Not as flat as it looks

Don’t let the course map fool you, this race isn’t flat! It’s not hilly, but it’s not flat. It’s a continuous set of light rolling hills. It’s quite a good course to try and PB, because the rolling hills are probably easier on your legs overall. The only *big* hill is lemon drop hill, at mile 22, which is not as tough as most of the *big* hills I have encountered at other races. The course basically follows the road along the lake into town. It’s a shame that the trees block the view of the lake most of the course, but on the other hand those same trees provided much needed shade on my race day. Views of the lake are a mixed blessing, because as gorgeous as they are, they also tease you, it isn’t long before you can see the lift bridge in the distance even though you still have a solid two hours of running to get there! 

Grandmas

I loved the mile markers, great big yellow balloons floating in the air for the marathon, blue balloons for the half marathon. Since all water stations are at mile markers this also made it easy to see the water stations well in advance so you could take your gels just before a water stop.

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The nastiest part of the course is actually the last mile and a half. I am so glad my training partner and I walked this the day before race day. The last mile is one of those twisting turning finishes, where you turn a corner and think hey I can see the finish and then you turn away from the finish to add a few hundred more meters. If you aren’t expecting it, you might kick a little early and regret it. After a race with almost no sharp turns along a sweeping highway for 25 miles, suddenly making 90 degree turns left and right and being sent through parking lots is a strange way to finish, but it’s the last mile, you are almost done, you’ll get through it and the last .2 miles is straight to the finish through throngs to help you forget your pain!

The water stops – All other races can learn from Grandmas!

I LOVED the water stops at Grandmas. They did a fantastic job! I was a little surprised the first water stop wasn’t until 3 miles out, after that they had stops every 2 miles. When you reach mile 19 you have a water stop every mile.

Here’s what I thought they did better than any other race I have run. Every water stop was on both sides of the road. They had lots of volunteers. Every water stop followed the same pattern: Water, Powerade, ice, sponge, water. Even when I was still running (it was hot for my race day so by mile 13 I was walking water stops) I was able to get everything I needed without really slowing down. Having ice and sponges at every stop was particularly important on our race day. The original forecast had called for a warm day, but it turned into a really hot day and the fact they had ice and sponges at every water stop probably kept a lot of us out of the med tent!  There were a couple of Cliff Gel stops on the way as well, but I carry my own gels so I don’t remember exactly where they were.  There were also two stops with orange slices and strawberries.A huge kudos to the race organizers for having such great water stations along the way. 

If you needed it, there were several aid stations en route as well, I saw more than one runner pop over to get some vaseline or help mid-race.

The spectators – What a finish!

If you have family and friends cheering you on, ask at the race expo about the spectator train. This was so cool! They have a train at the start line which spectators can ride back to the start! It will stop along the way so they can cheer the runners along the course! Such a cool concept!

The crowds will vary depending on the weather. If it’s pouring rain, don’t expect many crowds for the first 18 miles. Pockets of spectators will appear to cheer you on but mostly it’s just you and the other runners. I ran on a gorgeous sunny day (i.e. hot!) which was not great for my time, but resulted in a great turnout for spectators! There were certainly stretches where we just had the occasionaly family at the end of their driveway clapping as we went by, but there were other spots seemingly in the middle of nowhere with big crowds making lots of noise cheering us through.

It’s the last 6 miles that really rocks! Personally that’s where I need it most! Once you get into Duluth you will find more and more crowds cheering you on, once you hit the cobblestone streets it gets even louder. My best pace in the last 10 miles was on the cobblestones as the cheering carried me through.  Of course I had no qualms about using electrical tape to write my name on my shirt so people could cheer me by name. Even when I am tired, or walking, I still enjoy hearing that cry of ‘you can do it Susan’ or ‘Go Susan’ . They don’t put the names on your bibs, so if you need that extra oomph, find a way to help the crowd cheer you on(though electrical tape it appears can cause chafing according to my male running parner who had to remove his name from the front of his shirt at mile 24 and paid the price for all tha cheering in the shower post-race)

Race swag

It’s all about the t-shirt! and medal right? I happened to run this race on the 40th anniversary, so I got a great jacket, and the medal is some serious hardware! I am not sure the airline would allow it as carry on! There were also official Grandma’s marathon race socks in my race kit. One of the things I like about this race is you don’t get your t-shirt until you cross the finish line. They don’t give you a race shirt, they give you a finishers shirt. Since I am one of those superstitious runners who refuses to wear my race shirt until after the race anyway, this worked out great for me! However the one drawback is that they do sometimes run out of sizes by the time later finishers cross the line. In particular ladies XS seems to be a popular size. So if you see a shirt you realy like in the race expo, splurge.

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The finish area

Youv’e crossed the finish line, you can barely walk, you’ve got your medal, your shirt, and your thermal blanket, and most important your drink ticket (don’t lose that, and if you are one of those rare runners who like me doesn’t drink beer you can get a soda instead). You can pick up your bag from gear check (volunteers will read your bib number and go off to find it for you, so you don’t have to think). There are bagels, chocolate milk, water, potato chips (hooray for salt!), and all the usual goodies in the finish area. If you are waiting for someone else to finish, it is possible to leave the secure area and come back to meet them in the finish area as long as you still have your bib.

Another great aspect of the finish areas is the change tents. That’s right you don’t have to try and change your shorts inside the port-a-potty! Go ahead and pack a full change of clothes in your bag check and then head to the beer tent feeling a little less sweaty and smelly.

There is a beer tent with a band (tip: the line for drinks is shorter inside the tent than outside) and when you have recovered enough to need real food you can stumble aroound Canal Park until you find a restaurant with available seating. We only had to walk about 3-4 blocks to find a restaurant which could seat us immediately. After a late lunch we hobbled back to the DECC and found the shuttle bus which took us back to the dorms for a nap and a shower (in that order!) We came back to Canal park for supper to eat at Grandma’s restaurant and to take a picture by the lift bridge, a fitting ending for Grandma’s marathon.

To sum up! Because that was a long race report

Grandma’s is an extremely well organized race, a nice course, and nice atmosphere. If the weather co-operates you could definitely PR on this course, in fact it’s one of the top ten races for Boston qualifying times. Getting there was a little more expensive for me because I had to fly in, but the meals, souvenirs, and accomodations were cheaper than other big races I have done, so it worked out. It has the feel of a big marathon but it’s held in a small town which makes for a really nice atmosphere. Register early and book your accomodations early. Grandma’s is waiting for you!

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Philadelphia Marathon–To see a city at it’s best run a marathon there!

I just ran the Philadelphia marathon. Every race is unique, here’s my take on Philly.

  • The city as a race destination
  • The people
  • The start
  • The course
  • The finish chute
  • What could have been better
  • The best part of the Philadelphia Marathon
  • Thank yous

The city as a race destination

Philadelphia is a fantastic destination city for a race. The Terminal Reading Market with it’s decadent Beiler donuts (freshly made maple bacon donuts, no wonder this place always has a line up!), Flying Monkey whoopee pies and pumpple cake (apple pie in vanilla cake on top of pumpkin pie in a chocolate cake! I think I would have to run a marathon to burn of the calories from that! Philly cheese steaks, lots of tasty ways to get your calories.

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Philadelphia is also home of the Liberty Bell, lots of street art and beautiful buildings. Perhaps the busiest tourist attraction for a group of racers who have been training for 4 months is the front steps of the Art Gallery made famous by Rocky! (they were easier to run up than I expected, even if you take them two at a time, but I still can’t do one armed pushups like he does in the movie). The statue of Rocky Balboa at the bottom of the steps was even wearing a Philadelphia marathon shirt. There was a line up of runners waiting to pose with the statue.  The rocky theme music runs through the head of many a runner at some point in a race or training, so he holds a special place in our hearts. And best of all, lots of hop on/off bus tours to get you between all the attractions without spending too much time on your feet and lots of hotels an easy walk from the start line. Both important details for anyone running a marathon.

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The people

I don’t know if hosting a big race brings out the best in people, but we met some wonderful people during our visit. Whether it was random locals like the trio we met at dinner Saturday night at Gran Caffe L’Aquila (amazing food and service there btw!) who generously offered to buy us drinks, and when we informed them we had a marathon to run the next day so we were only having one glass of wine, they apparently asked the waiter to put those drinks on his bill.  To the fantastic fan support through downtown on race day. Lots of people holding up signs, cheering us on, ringing cow bells, reading the names off our bibs and cheering us on by name (which I LOVE by the way, every time a complete stranger yells out ‘Go Susan’ I get a little burst of energy.  Several fans were obviously cheering on family or friends in the race as I saw them two or three times on the course (the guy with the Dr Who sign and the couple with the giant cat and dog signs). So it’s also good to know that from a spectator perspective you can see someone more than once on the race course. There was one stretch through downtown about a mile long where the crowds were incredible!

The start

The start on race day had its ups and downs. anyone entering the start area had to clear security. I completely understand the need for security. This race was only one week after the attacks in Paris, and ever since the bombings in Boston, we all recognize that a big race is a potential target. Unfortunately the security was not organized as efficiently as possible to get runners into the start. Some runners waited in line 30 minutes and then discovered they could have walked 2 minutes to another entrance with a 5 minute line. Some runners did end up starting late. So hopefully this is something that will improve in future years.  Perhaps better signage, more volunteers letting people know about alternate entrances, better separation in the line ups of runners with bags/without bags/ spectators. Again, I appreciate the need for security and thank the volunteer who turned back the spectator who tried to enter the start area with pepper spray in his bag. But arriving at 6 AM for the 7 AM start was a mistake on our part and several other thousand runners, so room for improvement there.

WP_20151121_14_53_00_ProOnce inside the race start area, things improved, there were lines for the port-a- potties but there always are. The line ups were typical. The bag check was well organized. Participants bib numbers were based on expected finish times (faster runners lower bib numbers, slower runners higher bib numbers), so they had the bag check doen by last name which means shorter lines for pick up at the finish. They also provided nice big clear bags for the race check as part of our race kits, I had lots of room for warm clothes to wear post race.

There were entrances to corrals where bibs were checked, I appreciate the effort to keep racers in their assigned corrals. Those of us out for a PB can be frustrated by casual runners who think it’s cool to be closer to the front and don’t realize that it’s a trial for faster runners to be zigging and zagging around those who run a slower pace. Don’t get me wrong, I love having racers of all abilities at a race, but if you and a friend are planning to chit chat walk/jog the entire race and have never run a race before, please go to a corral with other people going a similar speed. It’s a great system when everyone follows the rules.

Unfortunately or fortunately the start was delayed because a car needed to be towed. Worked out for me because it meant I got to get through the port-a-pottie line, but frustrated others who had gone to their corrals and had to wait longer. But, not really something within control of the race, they were ready to start on time.

The course

The first 2 miles

The gun went off, and about 7 minutes later I crossed the start, perfectly reasonable given my corral. But the Rocky music was playing, and the deputy mayor and Bill Rogers were high fiving runners as they crossed the start (I high fived the deputy mayor). So I was in good spirits.  It is fairly narrow at the start of the course, so it was very difficult to set your own pace. Honestly until you turned down Columbus Boulevard along the Delaware river you frequently got stuck behind other runners, also the buildings threw off my GPS which would tell me I was running a 1:45/km pace one moment and 6:15/km pace the next.

Miles 2-8

Definitely the most fun part of the course, even it was a little narrow and the road was somewhat uneven. But I loved it because the crowds were awesome!  I had my fastest mile along this stretch.

Miles 9-13

After you leave the crowds you hit the hills. Now let’s be clear for those who train in Vermont, you probably would call this course flat, for those who run in New Orleans, you would call miles 9-26 hilly Smile. There were some hills along the way, but that’s true of most marathons. There was also quite a headwind on the toughest hill, but that was just our luck on race day. A few stretches of road had quite the camber which was a little tough on the legs, but the view as we ran along Schuykill river back towards the Art Museum was nice (and we had a tail wind for that Smile)

Mile 13-20

This was the toughest stretch of the course in my opinion. Those running the half marathon peel off to the finish line and you turn around and head back into the wind along the river. There are very few crowds cheering you, and because it’s an out and back you see the faster runners headed back to the finish line. It was great to have a chance to wave to the other runners I knew in the race, but knowing that they had 3 miles to go and I still had 10 was tough mentally. There is also a very odd little out and back at Mile 17, I was rather miserable here since I had just spent 4 miles running into the wind and my IT band was not happy.

Mile 20-25

Just past mile 20 you turn around and head back towards the start. This felt good on so many levels. 1 – there is a good crowd along that half mile stretch before the turnaround point. 2 – you switch from head wind to tail wind. 3 – You are now the runner with 3 miles to go watching runners going the other way who still had 10 miles left. As tired as I was, I knew I was going to make it. 4 – I didn’t have to run that little out and back on the way back, so the distance back to the finish line from the turaround point was shorter! I’ve decided I liked that little out and back Smile, also my IT band settled down around mile 19, so aside from some very sore quads I was doing okay.

Mile 25 – 26.2

There is a slight uphill around 25 miles, but that’s also where the crowds start to build again cheering you to the finish. When you pass the 26 mile marker it’s downhill to the finish line. You can’t see it until you are quite close, but the crowds were great and I really enjoyed the high five from the mayor because a high five capture my emotions perfectly as I cross the finish line of a marathon. I did it, it’s done, I did it, yes! I can’t imagine how long he was standing there high fiving runners, but I will tell you I deliberately went over to get my high five and loved it.

The finish chute

Blankets and medals appeared very quickly and it took me a few minutes before I started to notice the sound of jingle bells ringing. It must have been another minute or so before I realized I was jingling as well. The race medal had a liberty bell that rang. So whenever you took a step there was a gentle jingling noise. The end result was this wonderful symphony of jingling all around you at the finish line. Best race medal ever!

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What could have been better?

Not all races are perfect, there are a couple of things I would love to see improved at the race aside from the security screening process I mentioned earlier.

Water stations

Not all water stations were on both sides of the road and some of the water stations were very short, since they were not at consistent distances this sometimes made it difficult to get water withough breaking pace. Having some big flags at each water station would help so we can see them coming. Having water stations on both sides of the roads would help, having water stations at consistent distances would help so we know when to expect them. They did show us on th emap where water stations would be, but I didn’t memorize every water station location.  I was very glad I brought my own water so I could skip some of the stations and take my gels without worrying about where I would find the next stop.  I did appreciate having gatorade and water at each station and the volunteers who were shouting out where to get water vs gatorade (their voices must have been completely hoarse by the end of the day)

Snacks at the finish

When I cross a finish line, I am spent, anything I have in the tank I use up in the last mile. I need to keep walking. If I stop walking, I get very light headed and sometimes nauseous. So when I saw the line up for the post race food (bananas and bagels usually) I had to walk past. I could not physically stand in that line up. I had no trouble getting water and the snacks themselves were fine, the pretzel I managed to snag as I walked past was like mana from heaven (salt!!!!) and I appreciated Macy’s donating bags to carry the post race nibbles. But perhaps I am spoiled by the National Capital Marathon and Army Run in Ottawa where they set up a tent and have about 15 different lines you can go to to get your post race nibbles so you never stop moving even when you are grabbing your food.

The best part of the Philadelphia Marathon

The spirit!

mayorhighfiveThe Philadelphia marathon is run by the city, not one of the big race companies. Hey I run Rock N Roll races too. But the fact it’s run by the city changes the spirit of the event. Toronto, Canada had a mayor who sees big races as a nuisance instead of an opportunity. 30,000 runners raced this weekend. We came, we ran, we also spent a fair bit of money at restaurants, hotels, stores, tourist attractions. We got to know your beautiful city, and may return as tourists with our families because we just didn’t have enough time to appreciate all the city has to offer. Not only that it’s nice to think that any profits from the race can go to help the city itself. Mr. Mayor (and Mr Deputy Mayor I know he was there at the start giving high fives) we weren’t just accepting a high five for finishing the marathon, we were also giving you a high five for being such a wonderful host!

Thank yous

I may be running the marathon alone, but you have a lot of time to think over 4 hours of running and endless hours training before hand. In no particular order, because you can’t rank a list like this…

Thank you K2J for all your help with the training. That’s a PB for me and a BQ!

Thank you to all my fellow runners, you know who you are, for helping me stay sane, motivated, and healthy throughout the training and on race weekend. Every call, every cheer, every word of support makes a difference.

Thank you Run Ottawa for organizing the bus trip from Ottawa. That was a fantastic way to get to and from the race and meet runners from other Ottawa race groups. Thanks Jon for the donuts on the bus too Smile.

Thank you to my family for putting up with my constant disappearances for runs and my frequent naps after the long runs and the chores I didn’t do because I was running.

Running Boston – don’t underestimate YOUR impact

Boston – to a runner that single word can conjure up just about every emotion: hope,  disappointment, excitement, fear, courage, misery, elation.

I just completed my first Boston Marathon. I wanted to take a moment to sit down (and not just because my legs are so sore I am not sure I can get up again) and pay tribute to those who make Boston such an amazing experience!

In alphabetical order, because I can’t possibly rank them by importance

  • Boston
  • Boston Strong
  • Course
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Random people you meet after the race
  • Runners
  • Spectators
  • Volunteers

Boston

As we drove into Boston Friday night, we caught the weather forecast on the local radio station. (for non-runners – many runners are obsessed with the weather forecast for race day). They announced the forecast for Saturday, Sunday, and Marathon day.  When we arrived downtown, our hotel had a runners information booth. When we walked down Boyleston to pick up our race kits, stores all along the street had signs and displays cheering on the runners. You couldn’t help but smile and feel welcome. Pretty amazing considering we are completely disrupting the city. I wish all marathon cities were so welcoming!

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Boston Strong

In 2013 two bombs were placed near the finish of the Boston marathon. Spectators and runners were killed and injured. The daffodil is a symbol of remembrance. Pots of daffodils can be found at store fronts everywhere. A blue and yellow ribbon of crochet daffodils is wrapped around the posts where the two bombs detonated. Every runner stops and pauses for a moment. The Boston marathon has actually become more popular since the bombing. Whenever I saw the phrase Boston Strong I thought of the day I was tracking my sister and several friends at the Boston Marathon and the hours following as we waited to find out if everyone was okay.  Runners who were there, quietly retold stories. Some runners, volunteers and spectators never returned. There are actually more runners who try and register for Boston now than before the bombing. It’s as though running Boston is a small way for runners to pay tribute to those affected.

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Course

The Boston Marathon course has a lot of hills. Enough said!

Family

You cannot run the Boston marathon without support from family. Family could be your spouse, kids, parents, siblings, cousin, or those friends who are like family. Whether they are with you in person on race day or not, family gets you there and family gets you through it! Calling to wish you good luck or to congratulate you when you finish. Listening to you talk incessantly about the race before and after. Giving you the time to pound the pavement during your training and the time to nap when you get home from that long run. Around the six mile mark I met a rummer carrying a carefully folded american flag. I asked her who it was for. She immediately rattled off four names. There are many types of family, and there are many ways to run with them.

I had my sister Judy on the course with me. Having my sister there to coach, mentor, and support me made the entire weekend easier and more special. My other sister Robin and her husband Paul stood on the roadside in the cold cheering and got me through that last 2 miles when I was struggling. My mom ran her first Boston at the age of 65. My dad qualified but never had a chance to run. His knees don’t allow him to run anymore, but I still love telling other runners about his rmarathon refuelling strategy : a beer every 6 miles! Add to that a spouse and two boys who don’t understand my urge to run marathons but still support me and you can can understand why I am smiling in this picture with my sister (and yes that is a sling, my sister broke her elbow the Sunday before Boston, and yes she did still run, very carefully, with her arm well paddde and protected, with a cell phone and cash in case she needed to bail, she finished! So a memorable year for both of us!)

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Friends

My friends will probably be happy that Boston is over, because maybe now I will stop talking about it! I don’t know if other runners do this, but every time I run over one of the tracking pads which updates my results, I think of my friends who are tracking me online. Every friend who liked my Facebook post, posted to my wall, called, emailed, tweeted, or wished me luck in person helped me qualify, train and run that race! Thank you so much!

Most of us have a running partner or two who hold a special place in our hearts when we get to a big race like this! Not everyone is insane enough to run a marathon. Not everyone understands what drives you to drag yourself out to run four hours in cold rain and wind. When you have the chance to run a race like Boston and your training partner isn’t there with you, you still hear their voice cheering you on as you contemplate the next hill and wonder how long you can keep going. I look forward to the day I board the bus to Hopkington with my training partner! So keep up the physio Jersey! We need an updated race pic!

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Random people you meet after the race

After you run Boston, you can wear “the” jacket. I bought my jacket Friday night so I could make sure I could get a jacket in my size. For two days it sat there in my room taunting me. I was at the race with K2J Fitness, my running group. To wear the jacket before I finished would be a major faux pas.

When you finally don the jacket (and once you finally put it on you don’t care it it’s blue & yellow or bright orange, pink or purple!) random strangers will congratulate you and even thank you for running the race! The lady at the toll booth on the freeway said congratulations. When I stopped to fill the tank in Vermont on the drive home, another driver walked over to ask if I had run, then congratulated me and gave me an actual pat on the back. Thank you complete strangers! Those little moments made my day! So don’t be shy, if you see someone wearing a race medal or jacket, if you think that race was an accomplishment tell them!

Runners

A speedo? really? There was a guy in the athlete’s village wearing nothing but a speedo. Wouldn’t that chafe? Not to mention it was cold, rainy, and windy!

If you train with a running group they are a big part of your support network. When you get injured, you need to talk to other runners who have been injured and recovered. Heck, after a while you start exchanging names of physiotherapists, and comparing stretches you’ve been assigned to treat your IT band. When the weather sucks, you need other runners to motivate you to get in your miles. When you skip a run, you need another runner to tell you, it’s okay to skip the occasional work out. I appreciated all the experienced Boston runners telling me about Boston races when they completely bonked. If ound it oddly comforting to discover runners I respect have had terrible runs in Boston. I can’t count how many people told me “Don’t expect to BQ on your first Boston” or “Don’t go out too fast!”. Your fellow runners get you to the start line.

At Boston, 60% of those running were first time Boston runners. We met each other on the buses, in the athlete’s village, in the start corral, on the course, after the race in our jackets, in the road side Liquor super store in New Hampshire where all the Canadians stop to pick up cheap booze on the drive home. I passed a runner with a red bib (which means he left in wave one well before I started in wave three). He had crutches and a walking cast! I met runners from Texas, Alaska, Quebec City, Vermont, Florida, Ottawa, Brazil, Korea. 30,000 runners registered for Boston (and I think they were all in line for the port-a-potty at the athlete’s village when I needed to go). There were runners walking, jogging, smiling, crying, stretching out cramped calves an dbacks, giving high fives to the crowd, waving their arms to get the crowds cheering, and sometimes just slogging along trying to drag themselves to the finish line. A shared day of ups and downs both emotinally and physically (did I mention the Boston course has a lot of hills?). I am proud to have my name listed with yours on the poster!

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Spectators

It was lousy weather on race day. It was cold, windy, and rainy. yet there were thousands and thousands of people out there cheering! Little kids offering orange slices, licorice, and high fives. The Wellesley college girls offering free kisses. People on their front lawns calling out ‘thank you for running’. When all I could think was thank you for standing outside to cheers us on. I was in the last corral of wave three. I left a solid hour after the first wave. There were fans out in that miserable weather for hours on end!

I put a sticker on my jacket with my name, so I heard many cries of “Go Susan” or chants of “Susan Susan Susan” which made me smile. I admit like many runners when I had to stop and walk those same cries can feel more like salt in a wound. I prefered the high fives and quieter encouragement when I had to stop and walk. But as you got closer to the finish the crowds got bigger and louder. I ran 26.2 miles to the sound of cowbells, bagpipes, drums, Elvis, rock bands, and so much cheering I assume that Boston must be sold out of throat lozenges today as everyone tries to treat their  laryngitis. I think there should be a Boston spectator jacket you can purchase if you have cheered at Boston. When I think Boston Strong, it’s not just about the runners, it’s about the spectators too!

Volunteers

There were volunteers handing out race kits, setting up the course, setting up the athlete’s village, handing out water and gatorade, raking up empty cups at the water stops, directing us, cheering us, taking care of those who needed medical help, handing out our medals, and helping us into our capes to keep us from getting hypothermia when we crossed the finish. Some of those volunteers stood in the cold for hours shouting out ‘gatorade gatorade gatorade, water water water’ and yet they still found time to yell out ‘Go Susan’ as I snatched a cup from their hands. A canadian volunteer was handing out medals and called over some of my friends when she saw their maple leafs and was so excited to have the opportunity to place the medal over their heads. The volunteers do get their own Boston jackets and they are well earned. Another Boston Strong team!

Now what?

Well I didn’t BQ at Boston, so I won’t be back next year. But I hope to return one day. Regardless this was a weekend to remember. I will happily regale anyone who is willing to listen with tales of Boston. Thank you once more to my amazing friends, fellow runners, my family, my kids, and my husband for all your support. I can honestly say I could NEVER have done this without you.

Ten Tips for writing better blogs posts

This post will share ten specific things you can do to imrpove your blog posts.

  1. Make sure your post is worth reading
  2. Use a summary sentence
  3. Use lists to summarize content of long posts
  4. Use screenshots and pictures
  5. Complement your post with video
  6. Include hyperlinks
  7. Open links in a separate tab or window
  8. Let your personality come through
  9. It’s all in the title
  10. Go back and edit your post

1. Make sure your post is worth reading

Abandon the philosophy “I blog therefore I am”. Writing a blog post can be a selfish act, you may be really happy about something, or really angry about something or maybe you just figured something out and you want to show the world ‘look what I figured out”.

Ask yourself – What will the reader get out of reading this post?

There is too much “stuff’ on the internt. When you add to that collection of stuff, make sure it’s worth someone’s time to read it.  Are there successful blogs that rant constantly? Yes, but the successful ones are deliberately written to entertain or inform. Make sure you have a take away for your reader in mind. What will I learn from your post?  ‘how to install node.js’ ‘how to make a healthy snack your kids will actually eat’ or ‘how to avoid overspending on a laptop’

imageHere’s an example, this Imagine Cup post is a first person story by a student who won first place in a competition. What’s notable is the content helps a student understand the value of participating in the competition. It’s not just a brag about winning.

2. Use a summary sentence

When you search online for ‘what laptop should I buy?’, you get two thousand matches. How do you decide which search results is worth clicking?

The average user spends about 5 seconds glancing at a page before they decide whether it’s worth staying to read that page. Remember point #1 make sure your post is worth reading! The user wlil take about 5 seconds to decide if your post is worth reading. So, provide a single sentence to tell me what I learn if I take the time to read your post.

It helps to make your summary sentence stand out visually by using italics or a different colour.

image

Another advantage to the summary sentence: Your summary will appear in the details of the search results soI know what I wil learn from the search results page as well. I wrote this post two years ago and it still gets hits (Mental note: go update this post so people aren’t finding out of date information…)

image

3. Use lists to summarize content of long posts

Sadly some of the best blog posts are the least read.

Why? Because when someone takes the time to write out all the details to explain something, the end result can be a very long blog post.

Your reader may be looking for something very specific. You may provide that information half way through your post, but they are unlikely to read through 4 pages to see if you cover that one topic. If you break your post into sections, you can provide a list at the top listing all the sections. If you really want to make the user happy, add hyperlinks so your reader can click on a topic and go straight to the section of interest to them.

image

4. Use screenshots and pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words!

If you are going to try and show me how to use a piece of software, or how to bake a cake, please include pictures and screenshots.  It is visually appealing and can be more effective than describing with text. Pictures also break up the endless text in a longer blog post. If I see a really long post with nothing but text I am less likely to read it.

If you are going to share screenshots, invest in software that will let you capture delayed screenshots so you can show pop-up menus. It helps to have an editor so you can add boxes, arrows, and highlights to your screenshots.

All the screenshots in this post are captured and edited with Snagit.

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5. Complement your post with video

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can be worth a million!

Whether you are showing me how to apply a compression bandage, how to cook an omelet or how to deploy an Azure website, video can be a great complement to your blog post. But keep it short. If you embed a 57 minute video in your blog post, chances are your video will go to the ‘when I have time’ list along with a number of other excellent recordings that I really want to watch when I have the chance. I find somewhere in the 4-9 minute range is about the longest video I will watch when it is embedded in a blog post. You are better off creating 4×5 minute videos than one 20 mintute video if you can find a way to break up the content.

As with screenshots, take the time to invest in some software for recording your video and a microphone to improve the audio quality of your recordings. The other advantage to short recordings is they take less time to redo when you make a mistake. If you are doing a software demo, increase the font sizes and consider a tool like Zoomit to help highlight and zoom in on the important parts of the screen during your demo.

Watch the video below and try to imagine writing a blog post to explain how to use this feature instead of using video. FYI, I used Zoomit to zoom in and draw a few arrows. (my Zoomit skills pale in comparison to @GeekTrainer who uses it really effectively in his Microsoft Virtual Academy videos). FYI, I used my headset instead of my Snowball Microphone for this recording and I did get feedback from a viewer saying the audio was hard to hear.

Sample video using Zoomit and headset microphone

6. Include links!

When you recommend a tool or resource, please provide a hyperlink!

I LOVE bloggers who include links to related resources. If you are showing me a recipe for a cocktail and the recipe calls has an ingredient of “ginger simple syrup” please give me the link to a recipe for ginger simple syrup, that’s not somethig I can just pick up at the store! If you are writing a technical post and you start tell me I need to have a Microsoft account and Visual Studio installed, give me links on where to create a Microsoft account and where I go to install Visual Studio! Please!

I suspect one of the people who read this post has already clicked on a link in this post. If not here’s one for you to click now.

7. Open links in a separate tab or window

Don’t lose your reader!

You’ve added links to your blog post, but what happens when your reader clicks on them? Do they leave your post? Will they ever come back?

If you don’t open links in a new window or tab, I may click on that link in and never return. You put time and effort into the post, you convinced me to start reading it. Increase your chances of me reading the whole thing by opening links in a new tab or window.

8. Let your personality come through

This is your blog post! You have a personal style, let it come through in your post. 

Whether it’s a  tradition of including a picture of your cat in each blog post, links to random silly videos, song parodies, or a tendancy to write run on sentences, something I have been accused of doing from time to time even though that goes against best practices when writing blog posts.

9. It’s all in the title!

You may have written the best explanation of how to change a tire ever! But if you gave it the title “I figured it out and so can you” Chances are I will never find your post when I am searching for tips on how to change a tire.

Your title needs to give me an indication of what I will learn or at least catch my attention so I am curious enough to visit your post and read your summary sentence.

Personally I despise titles with hyperbole such as “The most amazing unbelievably scrumptions chocolate sauce ever” I find them too much and they actually turn me away. So do be careful with adjectives in your title. I prefer a simple descriptive title “An easy dark chocolate sauce recipe” is more likely to get my attention especially when you add a nice photo of a slice of chocolate cake draped in your velvety sauce… hmmm hungry now.

When in doubt, a popular title is Top Ten <fill in the blank>, people often search for top laptops, top video games, top new features, top attractions, so it’s a good fallback title, of course it does force you to come up with 5 – 10 good points to cover in your post!

10. Go back and edit your post!

Edit and then edit again!

Re-read your post and look for spelling mistakes. Spell check won’t catch everything! I recommend reading the post from bottom to top to look for spelling mistakes. After all their mite bee some words that spell check says are syntactically valid but inn you’re post are used inn the wrong context.

A good friend of mine writes short stories and has had several published. She told me when you finish a store or chapter, you should go back and edit it with the goal of removing sentences and words that do not add to the story. When you are finished your edit, your story should be about one third shorter! The result is a cleaner, faster paced story. You would be amazed how much you can remove while still delivering the same message sharper and cleaner!

Go forth and write!

There are many other ways to write great blog posts, but hopefully this helps! Apologies  to all my readers for all the posts I have written where I didn’t folllow my own rules!

Fear–let it help you not hurt you!

Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you use it wisely it might even help you!

I am a runner. I loved running 5 km races. Occasionally I would run a 10 km race, but they seemed really long. Somewhere along the way I decided I should try a half marathon. The furthest I had run at that point was a 16 km run which was part of my training plan to run 10 km faster. I figured I could likely manage 5 more km.

I asked my sister (a running coach and talented runner) for a training plan. I followed it and picked my goal race. I set myself a goal of completing the race in 1 hour and 50 minutes. Race day arrived and I felt great. I ran my first 10 km at a pace that would have had me finishing at nearly 1:45! I was ahead of pace! Somewhere around 17 km I hit the wall. Most people hit the wall when they run their first marathon, I guess I am an overachiever because I did it on a half. My knee and hips were screaming, I was completely miserable. A combination of walking and jogging took me to the finish line, and I felt every single step. That night, I was so sore I remember contemplating stealing a walker from a lady walking across the parking lot (if I could catch her) and wondering why street curbs were so high!

Fast forward two years, I registered for my first marathon. The marathon is infamous for testing the limits of runners. At this point I had successfully completed four half marathons but the marathon was more than a little intimidating. Could I do it? Preparing for a marathon reminded me of pregnancy: Anyone who had been through it themselves either had advice or a horror story to share! 42 km! 4 + hours non-stop running, I had bombed my first attempt at 21 km, how would I finish 42 km!

I had a training plan, a running group and coach, and amazing family and friends cheering me on. They gave me the tools and support, but it was fear that gave me the motivation to prepare. I followed my training plan, when the running conditions were bad, I drove to the gym and paid to use a treadmill. I was terrified of repeating my experience with my first half marathon. I listened and considered all the advice fellow runners shared. On race day, I started out feeling good. I got to 21 km feeling pretty good. But, when you train for a marathon your longest run is 32 km, so I knew the last 10 km was the real test. The best description I ever heard for a marathon was a 32 km warm up for a 10 km race. I got to 32 km and felt okay. I reached 35 km where my husband and son were waiting with signs to cheer me on and I was tired of course, but I was able to maintain my pace. At 40 km I realized I was going to make it. My first marathon was a race I could be proud of!

NationalCapitalMarathonIt was fear of failing that motivated me to do my training runs. It was fear that had me dragging myself out in the dark, through the cold, through the snow and sleet. It was that fear that led to my success

I’ve had the same experience when preparing for big presentations. Fear of failing drives me to prepare, to research, to practice my presentation, my demos. Fear is what motivates me to do the groundwork I need to do to succeed!

I am not the most disciplined worker. I’m the person who forgets to get something done. I am the person who says ‘I am going to do sit-ups every day’ does it for three days and then gets distracted. One of the reasons I decided to register for a marathon was because I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing something that required discipline. You can’t fake your way through a marathon. If you skip the runs, you will feel it on race day. The fear of falling apart after 32 km helped me do what I needed to do and allowed me to achieve my goal.

So what is it you want to achieve? are you afraid you can’t do it? Maybe that very fear is what will help YOU reach YOUR goal!

Ranking priorities is easier than you think

Whether you are prioritizing your to-do list or requirements for an application. It helps to have a simple way to prioritize, in this post I’ll share my favorite method.

I’ve seen many different methods to rank items on a requirements list or to-do list. Priority High/Medium/Low,  ranking priority from 1-5.  When doing everything isn’t an option (and it never is!) somehow you have to decide what comes first.

When I taught Business Analysis, I came across a wonderful and simple way of ranking priorities: Must, Should, Could, Would. What I love about this method is the fact it is self describing. However, I still find it helpful to describe each category to co-workers when we are trying to decide what to do first.

MUST 

For requirements

When I am considering requirements for an application, anything identified as a MUST is a feature that is worth delaying the release to get. Put simply, the application MUST have this feature or it is not worth building the application at all!

For my to-do list

If I don’t do this I am not doing my job! I am not talking about forgetting to file an expense report, I mean my core reponsibilities, what I was hired to do! Sometimes there is a MUST on my to-do list that I dread doing, but when I acknowledge to myself it’s a MUST do, I have to set aside time to do it.

For exercise

We all know we should get some exercise. Some weeks it is easier than others. Did you know that as long as you exercise every third day you are improving? If you exercise the 4th day you are at least maintaining. So for me, a MUST exercise day is when I’ve gone 3 days and haven’t done anything. On Day 4 I MUST do something, otherwise I am actually getting less fit. Of course a must varies depending on your goals.  When I am training for a marathon, the MUST is the long run because that’s the run that you will regret skipping race day)

SHOULD

For requirements

Anything identified as a SHOULD that is not included in a release is going to make users unhappy and may even make them mad! They will be able to use the application but you had better give them a date when the SHOULD requirements will be added. Some of the SHOULD features may be pushed back a release or two but you know the users are going to be complaining until the SHOULD requirements are released.

For my to-do list

If I don’t do this task, one of my co-workers or maybe even my boss is going to be unhappy. Maybe it’s data I promised to try and put together so they could complete a plan. Maybe it’s something I promised to follow up on. My boss isn’t going to start yelling at me because I didn’t do it, but somebody out there will be unhappy if this doesn’t get done.  I certainly try to do all the SHOULD items on my to-do list. But during a crisis, they may get pushed back until everything is under control.

For exercise

If you get exercise every third day, then you are improving. Shouldn’t we all strive to get fitter rather than just maintain our current level of fitness? Getting in a workout at least once every three days is something we SHOULD all do. When I am training for a marathon, hill work falls into the SHOULD category. I know if I do my hill work it will pay off on race day (there are very few marathon courses out there without hills). But if I don’t do my hill work I’ll still finish, it’s just going to be a lot tougher.

 

COULD

For requirements

This is how you make users happy! When you start adding the features a system COULD have the result is a feature that will make the users happy. Something the old system perhaps couldn’t do and caused them frustration. Something taht will make the users lives easier

For my to-do list

When I get to the COULD items on my to-do list I am making the people I work with happy. Perhaps even going a little bit above and beyond. Maybe it’s taking the time to write a little email to their manager thanking them for helping with a task. Maybe it’s taking the time to put together a really awesome graph or report that summarizes the work we’ve done in the past year or the work to do in the coming year. When you manage to get a few COULD items on your to-do list completed you may start to get a little recognition for your effort, even if it’s just a ‘Thank you this is really helpful’ email from a co-worker.

For exercise

Ahhh, now if you can get to the COULD do items on your exercise strategy you should actually start to notice improvements. You could take a few minutes each day to do some situps or push ups. You could add some cardio to your routine, or if you do cardio maybe add a little strength training to your routine.  But, if you want to make it a habit to get to the COULD items on your exercise routine, I strongly recommend doing it with a friend, or making sure it’s something you can turn into a routine. When I am training for a marathon I COULD add some strength training to improve my core and some stretching. I can run a marathon without doing situps, but I’m going to look much stronger in that finish line photo if I can fit it in. Hmmm, since stretching will help me prevent injury, I guess I should really bump that up to the SHOULD list!

WOULD

For requirements

When you interview users and ask them for their list of requirements for a new system, every now and then they will say something like ‘you know what would really be nice’ . These are the WOULD like to have priorities. These are feature we will include if it turns out we can do them without really spending any serious amount of money or time doing it. Every now and then the users request a change that will take very little time to implement,  it may be a feature that already exists in the software but wasn’t implemented or well understood. We don’t often get to add a WOULD to a system, but when you do, the users smile and you get the satisfaction of knowing you made them happier without a big investment of resources.

For my to-do list

Ahhh, I have so many WOULD like to do items on my to-do list. You know all those articles you want to get around to reading, or the things you want to sit down and learn when you have time. When you do have the opportunity to tackle a WOULD item on your to-do list, the result is YOU are happier. You had a little time to tackle something that you wanted to do for you. Keep an eye out for easy WOULD like to do items that won’t take much time. Once in a while you may find a little window at the end of the day, when you really don’t have the energy to tackle the big to-do items and giving yourself 30 minutes to work on a WOULD like to do can re-energize you and remind you why you like your job!

For exercise

What exercise do you actually enjoy? Is it yoga? kickboxing? (I love kickboxing) cross country skiing? A walk along the river? Find a little time here and there to do something you enjoy that happens to be exercise, rather than doing it because it is exercise. When I am training for a marathon, going for a run wiht no goal pace or distance is such a pleasure especially with a friend! Itgives me a break from the gruelling training runs and reminds me why I took up running in the first place.

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