The 2013 Grand Rapids Marathon was my first marathon, so of course it was a memorable experience. Little did I know that this year’s half marathon on Sunday, October 15th would end up being unforgettable in a different way. It was definitely an “experience.” Thanks to less than ideal weather conditions, I’m sure this one will remain pretty fresh in my memory for years to come.
I actually signed up to run this half in 2016. I thought I’d use it as a training run as I worked toward running the Richmond Marathon. When I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my foot in August last year, it was clear that I wouldn’t recover soon enough to run either race. The Grand Rapids Marathon is one of few races that provide the option to defer to the following year. I opted to pay the $25 fee to do so and this race was on my calendar for over a year.
One big reason I enjoy the Grand Rapids Marathon so much is because of Don Kern, the race director. He has a positive attitude and a great outlook on life that really resonates with me. When I considered signing up for the marathon in 2013, the humorous FAQ section on the website caught my interest and made me laugh. He sends newsletters every week as the race approaches, and they become daily updates when the race is 10 days out. He shares inspirational stories from his past marathons as well as tips to help alleviate any pre-race worries. Don has run over 300 marathons and has a lot of great stories to tell, many of which are documented in his book and the adventure continues…. It’s a great read about the adventures of an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things – such as setting the world record for the fastest time to complete a marathon on each continent.
As the race day approached, I fell into the habit of obsessively checking the weather forecast. It didn’t look good. It looked like it would rain, and it could be cool and windy as well. As people began to worry about the weather conditions for this year’s race, here’s what Don had to say:
“So here’s the deal. In case of bad weather, the race will be held OUTDOORS!
Ever run in the rain before?
Some people are asking me about if it’s possible the race will be canceled because of weather. 95 degrees. -25 degrees. Deluge thunderstorms. Wind. Rain. Fog. Whatever. We’ll cancel if there’s a disaster of Biblical proportions. Otherwise, plan on this thing happening. We’ve had 12 years of nice weather. What if one year we don’t?
Always remember–there’s more in you than you think. More strength. More determination. More guts. It’s all in there. Make it happen.”
Don’s advice helped me relax. He was right – I’ve run in the rain before and it was fine. Rather than going into the race thinking it was going to suck, I adjusted my mindset and looked at it as an adventure. As Don pointed out, if the weather was bad, we’d have a good story to tell. Boy, was he right…
Grand Rapids is more than two hours away from home, so I headed out the day before the race and stayed at a hotel. The drive out there was kind of miserable as it rained steadily the whole time. I went to the expo at the YMCA for the packet pickup. A pair of socks was included along with the long sleeve shirt. I found a nice short sleeve Brooks shirt that I bought as well.
I walked around a mall for a bit, got my standard pre-race dinner at Noodles and Company, then settled in at the hotel for the night. Although I had come to terms with whatever race day conditions we faced, I still kept following all of the updates. A video was posted of Don out at a flooded spot along the race course.
It was turning into an obstacle race at this point! We might have a few steps through a monster puddle, but we’d survive.
Although the forecast still didn’t look good, it was in the mid-60s and the rain had stopped when I headed out the next morning. Since the “velocity-challenged” racers were due to start at 7:00, I got to a parking lot by 6:45 to avoid dealing with road closures. I took a bag with post-race clothes to the gear check tent, jogged around a bit, and lined up in the corral. I happened to turn around and see one of my online running buddies Pete right behind me, so we chatted for a few minutes.
We’re lucky that the rain held off prior to the race so we stayed dry and warm. As the National Anthem began, the first drops of rain came. Over the next couple minutes, a few drops turned into a steady rain just as we were about to start. I looked at the girl next to me and we both just laughed and shook our heads. I was thankful that it was warm enough and I was smart enough to wear my triathlon outfit since this was practically a duathlon! I can imagine it would be annoying to have a wet t-shirt and shorts weighing down on me for 13 miles.
In addition to the rain, we had a pretty strong wind to deal with as well. Shortly after we started the wind blew the rain sideways and I heard someone comment that it felt like pellets. This was going to be an interesting one!
I was soaked within the first few minutes. Although I tried to go around most of the bigger puddles, I realized it really didn’t matter. It’s not like I’d end up more wet than I already was. I used Aquaphor all over my feet and wore Injinji toe socks, so I hoped that my feet wouldn’t turn into a mess of blisters. We ran around some streets in downtown Grand Rapids to start, and one stretch through the busy part of town had a lot of spectators cheering us on. I give the volunteers and spectators a ton of credit. At least we got to keep moving and stay warm, while they were standing there getting cold and wet.
After five miles or so of running through the streets downtown, we veered off onto a paved path through Millennium Park. When I ran the full marathon, I really enjoyed running a long stretch of Indian Mounds Road. It’s lined with trees that can be really pretty at this time of year. However, the half marathon turns before hitting that stretch. I didn’t notice scenery much during this race, with the exception of one short area 9-10 miles into the race. We finally got some nice fall colors in that spot versus mostly green everywhere else. I realized that I had forgotten about the hills along the course. I mostly view this race as “flat and fast” but it does have a few little climbs to keep things interesting.
Pretty early into the race I knew that I’d roll along without any big expectations. I hoped that I’d run faster than I had at the Brooksie Way half a few weeks earlier, but that was the only real goal. I didn’t feel especially fresh or fast, aside from a part around the ninth or tenth mile when there was enough of a downhill stretch to help speed me up. The rain didn’t bother me all that much, and it came and went a few times. During the few brief moments when it wasn’t raining, I noticed that my face was pretty warm. The temperature dropped throughout the day, and it’s probably for the best that it was a little warm. I’d rather not be cold in the rain and wind!
Don had announced at the beginning of the race that they had been able to clear up most of the “lake” about seven miles into the race. By the time I got there, it had been raining for nearly an hour and was pretty flooded again. Someone was making a great effort to reduce it by sweeping it and using a pump, but our feet were completely submerged for several steps.
I had to hold onto my hat a few times thanks to the wind, but it didn’t seem to affect me too much until the end of the race when everything felt hard enough as it was. I didn’t look at my watch very often, but I seemed to be averaging somewhere around an 8:00 pace as far as I knew. I didn’t realize that I had a few faster miles mixed in during the second half of the race that helped me end up with a negative split. I felt like most of the run was quite an effort, but mostly sustainable. The last few miles felt more labored though. It’s understandable considering my training.
I normally like to follow a training plan for the half marathon that requires speed work and tempo runs. I’m normally used to running a specific race pace. However, I’ve been cautious this past year because I feel little tweaks occasionally from the foot that I injured. It’s been a year – how long can this linger? I’m very thankful that I’ve been okay running up to the half marathon distance, but it’s still frustrating. Most of my runs have been at an easy pace aside from racing every few weeks throughout the summer. I’m surprised that I was able to sustain an 8:00 pace for so long when I haven’t been running it during training. The end of the race felt hard, but somehow I kept going and even sped up a little. This wasn’t one of those races where I started slow, sped up, and felt strong through the end though. I battled the rain and wind and managed to keep going, but I didn’t feel great. Here’s a picture from the final stretch when I didn’t see the photographer:
When I knew there would be a photographer at the finish, I faked a smile. The above picture reflects how I felt more accurately though, haha.
I finished in 1:43:47 – around two minutes better than my time at Brooksie. Goal achieved! It’s clear that the heat and hills of Brooksie were more difficult for me than coping with the pouring rain.
Here are my splits:
As if I haven’t raved about Don Kern enough already, another awesome thing he does is greet every person at the finish line. He’s there to shake every last person’s hand, and I think that’s pretty awesome. Especially in those conditions.
I was thankful for the heat blanket at the finish, because once I stopped moving I started to get cold. Although the frozen custard available in the food line looked good, I knew it wouldn’t be the best idea for me. I opted to grab a bagel, granola bar, apple, fruit snacks, and chocolate milk. I thought the chocolate milk would be a good way to get protein and refuel. I decided that was more important than the post-race beer, which I didn’t think would mix well in my stomach after a whole bottle of chocolate milk.
Eventually I went to the gear check tent to get my clothes. I was shivering by that point and my hands were getting especially cold. The race starts and ends by the YMCA, and they are kind enough to let the runners use the locker room. I got a post-race picture prior to changing.
You can’t tell from the picture, but I was totally soaked. During a triathlon, at least you have the benefit of drying off a bit thanks to the wind on the bike. Not this time! I started and finished totally soaked. I felt much better when I got into some dry clothes, but my hands were bad enough that I had to sit in the car with the heat on for a while before they got back to normal.
Looking back at the experience a week later, yes, it was hard and kind of sucked at times. But it was a memorable adventure, and having accomplished the race in such challenging conditions makes it that much sweeter. I had moments during the race where I smiled at the ridiculousness of voluntarily running 13 miles in the pouring rain. I also had moments where I was just trotting along, not quite suffering but not feeling great either. I feel good about the actual results of my race, but it also means more to me in the bigger picture. This race was a great reminder to keep a positive attitude, be adaptable, and try not to worry so much. The fact that it was so ridiculous and impractical is part of what made me enjoy it. It all worked out, and believe it or not, was actually pretty fun.