If You Don't PR, Don't Panic: Why Even a "Meh" Marathon Matters

Everything you’ve heard about the Twin Cities Marathon is true.

Oh, wait: have you heard anything? After running this marathon on October 7th, I’m convinced that it’s one of the hidden gems in big-city races.

A few years ago, my friend Eric told me that the Twin Cities Marathon was one of the best races he had ever done; the course was beautiful, the spectators were awesome, and from start to finish the race was incredibly well organized. Even though I’ve spent a ton of time in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was skeptical. How would the Twin Cities compare to Chicago and New York?

Compared to Chicago (45,000 runners) and New York (50,000 runners) this race is small. In 2018, I was one of 7,194 finishers. Yet, even though it’s a much smaller race, the crowd support in the Twin Cities felt more like New York. All weekend, it seemed the entire community knew the race was happening. On race day, tons of people were out along the course. And, unlike other races I’ve been to, the majority of spectators weren’t just standing around silently waiting for their runner to pass; most were cheering on everyone. Spectators had signs and noisemakers, and were clapping and yelling people’s names. I heard so many “Way to Go, Meghan!” or “You Got This Meg!” from strangers that I lost track, and I gave so many people high-fives (full of snot and sweat, but they didn’t seem to care). I saw countless house parties with sound systems and grills and even fire pits out front. One house party had champagne flowing for runners and spectators alike, while another had beers and yet another lined the streets for a quarter-mile with cut-up bananas ready for runners to take. In the early miles, the bells of one neighborhood church rang loudly and continuously in support of runners passing by.

But, despite having a smile on my face the whole time, I was disappointed in my results. I knew that my race plan didn’t work out. I had intended to follow Jeff Galloway’s approach of doing run/walk intervals for the first twenty or twenty-three miles and then pushing the pace. I did well early on, keeping my pace as close to my goal of eleven-minute miles as I could, but when I got to the later miles I just couldn’t speed up. When I tried to, my muscles cramped. I wanted to finish more than I wanted to PR, so I decided to back off a little and just try to sustain my three-minute run/one minute walk intervals.

As a coach, I know objectively that I did pretty well on my time (4:54:02) after not running a marathon for three years. It was only nine minutes off a PR I had when I was younger and at least ten pounds lighter (which matters a lot when it comes to running). Not to mention that, on this particular course, there was a long climb over miles 20 to 23 made the last 10K tough. According to the race results, after mile 24 I passed 147 runners and was only passed by 11. Yet I didn’t really believe what I advocate for as a coach: being happy with achieving my process goals even if I couldn’t accomplish the speed I needed for my time goal (4:40). It’s still hard to swallow that after eleven weeks of training, I didn’t achieve a goal I had set for myself. I felt like I should be getting faster, even if my goal was ambitious. I was frustrated that I had put in so much work, but still “failed” because I wasn’t faster than before. On social media, I saw people post their PRs and wondered what I did wrong.

Like so many of us, I still struggle with the idea that every race serves a purpose, and that not every purpose is a PR. It’s easy to beat myself up, to debate if I’m working hard enough, or to wonder if I’m simply never going to be good enough, fast enough, whatever enough. I have to remind myself that this race--and maybe all of the races I compete in--is not about that. I wanted to see what I could do. And, after two years of not training for a marathon, I came pretty close to a PR. Nine minutes off twenty-six miles? That’s literally twenty seconds off each mile. It’s eleven minutes faster than my first marathon five years ago. In this race, I can honestly say that I didn’t back off or play small. Last July, I ran the Napa to Sonoma Half and knew as soon as I finished that I could have done better. During the race, I was conservative, used excuses, and gave up on myself. I definitely did not do that at the Twin Cities Marathon.

If I was coaching myself, I would say I had a great race. I started easy and treated the early miles as a warmup just as I had planned. I mentally prepared for miles 12 to 16, which historically have been my hardest. I concentrated on running the mile I was in. When I had a fast mile in the middle, I slowed down to keep myself from going too fast. I enjoyed myself. I stopped to drink beer, to take pictures, to admire two bald eagles circling over Mile 16. When my cousin Katie jogged alongside me for a bit trying to give me Gatorade and pump me up, I slowed down. My friend Rachel was out on the course along mile 1 or 2 on Hennepin Avenue. I stopped to hug her. She said, “What are you doing? Get going!” I smiled and kept on running, but I knew that if that hug had cost me a PR I would be okay with it. And I still believe that. The same is true for stopping to kiss Scott at miles 8, 13, and 23. Or seeing my sister-in-law Abby dressed up as a T-Rex. Or stopping to chat with my friend Laura, who I haven’t seen since college. Or taking a selfie with some gals from the #badassladygang who literally tracked me down using the race app. Or hugging my friend Dawn, who always goes out of her way to support me. I was patient with other runners who were going slower than I wanted to on a narrow part of the course. I didn’t weave, and I concentrated on running the tangents even if people were slower around the inside of the corner. I took my time, I did my run intervals, and I didn’t hit a wall. All of those moments make better memories than a faster finish time.

Yes, there were aspects to improve. I could focus on nutrition, which would probably help me lose a little bit of weight and naturally become faster; I could try a different approach to training and racing; I could bring my own water so the water stops wouldn’t slow me down as much. And I could set less aggressive goals next time. But I could also work on my mindset. I could think about what PRs and speed mean to me. I could ask myself the same questions I ask my clients. Do I think those metrics are important because they indicate my own improvement and hard work? Or is my speed important because it indicates some kind of rank or value to other people in the running community?

Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between speed, the running community, and ourselves. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve quit a running club because of their focus on speed. I’ve been left behind on group runs. I felt embarrassed when I realized I was the slowest runner at Wilder (a running and writing retreat). There’s a definitely focus within the running community on being fast and equating that with being good at our sport. It’s obvious in running media, and in the real world at races and in running groups. I know that I’m not alone in feeling the way I do, because I’ve heard over and over again from runners about how painful feeling “slow” is. But, even if I’m always going to be an eleven-minute miler, would I keep running? Totally. I have to remind myself that it’s what I think about myself that matters, not what everyone else is doing. Yes, the average finishing time was faster than me (4:20:09). And I got passed by a lot of people (664). But I also passed a ton of people (1,197) especially in the second half of the marathon, which is where I’ve always excelled. I was able to finish strong. And even though I could have certainly tweaked my performance, I gave that race my all on that day. And I had a fucking good time doing it. That’s what counts.

So I’ve decided to see my 4:54:02 finish in my fourth marathon as a success. I tried to push, and at one point both my right foot and right calf cramped at the same time. I thought, well I hope something stops cramping by the time I land on that foot because otherwise I’m going to go down. I was willing to fall down in order to sustain my pace. Lucky for me, my foot flexed, the cramp released and I was able to keep going. I did push, running the last half mile at an 8:45 pace. According to Strava, I ran the second half of the marathon 45 seconds than the first half, so technically that’s a negative-split race. I have to demonstrate to myself through hard evidence that I ran a good race. I have to be a good friend to myself, and a good coach, too.

The Course:

I love Minnesota. Living in California where the leaves don’t change and there really is no “fall”, I was excited to feel the crisp air the moment I got off the plane. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that the leaves hadn’t started changing colors yet, but even so, this race is fantastic if you like nature and park paths. You start in downtown Minneapolis by U.S. Bank Stadium (where the Minnesota Vikings play) and run through the skyscrapers out to Hennepin Avenue which is bright, colorful, and lively. But once you’ve finished your first 5K, you’re out of an urban environment and running by lakes for what feels like hours. For five gorgeous miles, on your left is a beautiful lake and on your right, beautiful home after beautiful home with people outside cheering you on. I expected Miles 12 through 16 to be the hardest for me because those were difficult in past races. However, the stretch from mile 9 to 12 along the Minnehaha Parkway was difficult because it was less attended by spectators and was simply a parkway with trees on either side.

I also found it disappointing that you can’t actually see the Mississippi River for most of the time you run by it (approximately six miles). But the crowd of students from the University of Minnesota chanting the bass line from “Seven Nation Army” on the bridge where we crossed the Mississippi made up for that. And once you get into St. Paul (mile 19-20), the vibe of the course changes. There’s a long, slow incline from Miles 20 to Mile 23 that I had forgotten about. Living in San Francisco, I train on hills pretty often so I wasn’t intimidated by the “hills” on this particular course. I also feel like I get a mental boost at Mile 20 because I feel so close to being done. That being said, if you sign up for this race know that the last 10K is a long, hard stretch. One of my spectators out on Summit Avenue said that I was one of the few people running and in retrospect, I do feel like I was one of the few people who didn’t look like the Walking Dead on that part of the course.

Finally, much is said about the fast “downhill” finish, and I have to agree that it’s pretty spectacular. Around mile 25-ish, you turn a corner and the Basilica of St. Paul is right there with a gigantic American flag hanging over the course from fire engine ladders. Since the finish is downhill from you, you can see it for at least a half-mile. I ran as fast as I could down that hill, and it was a terrific finish for a gorgeous race. Because the race is rather small, the finish chute is really easy to navigate. In addition to the usual pretzels, water, Gatorade and chocolate milk, this race also gives you soup and homemade rolls which are awesome. I only had the soup, but it was the perfect thing to have before enjoying my finish line beer in the beer garden.

Meghan StevensonComment