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Minnesota

Updated: Feb 11

GARRY BJORKLUND HALF MARATHON

Duluth, MN


A Superior Trip

Day 1: Thursday, June 15, 2023


Earlier in the summer of 2023, wildfires completely engulfed Canada, making this year the worst wildfire season on record for British Columbia. The resulting smoke from the wildfires drifted into the United States and blanketed most of the northern and midwestern states. This caused some of the major U.S. cities to end up with the worst air quality in the world for weeks (going on 6 weeks at the time of this writing), which has included New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis. As my travel plans had been finalized for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota a year in advance, one of my obvious concerns heading into the week of the race mid-June was the air quality.

As my flight began descending into Duluth on June 15, Lake Superior came into view, and the light haze from the wildfires was apparent. Everything in the forecast predicted the smoke will have drifted further south and the air quality would be clear on race day, and I decided no matter what the conditions were, I was going to run anyway, unless the race was canceled. My first impression of Duluth when I arrived was that the Duluth International Airport is the smallest international airport I'd ever seen. It is a city owned public use joint civil-military airport, which means in size it is comparable to a miniature regional airport. It offers direct flights to only four destinations: Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, Fort Meyers, and Phoenix, and all other destinations involve a connecting flight. The airport has everything required, including a cute little travel convenience store doubling as a coffee shop. What I quickly learned while attempting to acquire transportation from the airport to my hotel is Uber and Lyft are virtually non-existent in Duluth. The Uber market in the area disappeared in 2020, wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential drivers had moved on to more lucrative business ventures. The shortage of rideshare drivers clearly continued into 2023 and the market never made a comeback.


When my Uber app demonstrated considerable difficulty connecting me to a driver, I gave up after about ten minutes and walked back inside the airport to figure out my next step. Thankfully, a nice couple inside — who undoubtedly saw me anxiously pacing outside through the automatic sliding glass doors — informed me they were there for the race too, and were also staying at the Holiday Inn & Suites downtown. They'd already contacted the hotel to send the complimentary shuttle, which up until that point, I hadn't bothered to learn existed. If you are planning a trip to Duluth, know that your transportation options consist of hotel shuttle, or taxi, and you may want to book your hotel somewhere that is within walking distance of everything, otherwise you will need to tack on the additional expense of renting a car.

Our shuttle driver graciously showed us around Duluth on the way to the hotel, and confirmed what we suspected about the rideshare shortage. He pointed out different landmarks along the way, discussed the impact the Canadian wildfire smoke has had on the community and surrounding metropolitan areas the past few weeks, and told us all about Lake Superior and its significance during Duluth's tourist season. When we discussed Grandma's Weekend, it was confirmed the majority of the race course for Grandma's Marathon and the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon would be flat, mostly running along Lake Superior. I was thankful for this confirmation, because my observation thus far was that Duluth had hills. Lots of them. Big ones. Duluth's downtown hills could be classified as somewhere in the middle on a scale of Boston to San Francisco, both of which I'd experienced in the context of attending conferences for work. I had just visited Boston the month prior, so the hills of downtown Boston were fresh in my mind. The view from my hotel room showcased one massively steep hill running up North 2nd Avenue and continuing into the distance.


I'd planned to arrive in town two days before race day, with the intention of building in some time for sight-seeing and exploration, and also as a travel cushion in case my travel plans went awry, as they had when I traveled to Virginia Beach for the Anthem Shamrock Half Marathon and got stranded in Philadelphia. This time, my travel plans had gone smoothly. Because most of the Grandma's crowd had not yet arrived in town on that Thursday afternoon, Duluth was a ghost town. It was quiet and peaceful, with completely empty streets, and the entire downtown area consistently smelled like roasting coffee everywhere I went. My first order of business was to have lunch at the legendary Grandma's Saloon and Grill, the first official race sponsor of Grandma's Marathon since June 25, 1977.


The charming family-owned restaurant lived up to expectations, complete with a touristy little gift shop, a bakery case with fresh pastries and cakes, and extremely friendly wait staff. Because I was one of less than ten guests in the restaurant at that time and it was long before the lunch rush, I did not have to wait long to be seated. While waiting for my seat, I took time to explore the gift shop, which was stocked with T-shirts, books, homemade jams and sauces, local honey, mugs, and other novelty items. Once I sat down at my table, I ordered a Monte Cristo at the suggestion of my server, and it arrived deep fried and served with an interesting yogurt-based fruit dip sauce, and French fries. I ordered fruit on the side for good measure to balance out the meal, and to keep my pre-race nutrition plan on track.



After lunch, I walked around downtown and explored the Canal Park business district and the Downtown Waterfront. There were shops selling antiques, hand-crafted jewelry, local art, chocolates, fudge, and touristy trinkets. There was even a Cold Stone Creamery, right next to the I ♥ Duluth clothing shop. In addition to these shops lining Canal Park Drive, there was a concentration of small businesses selling these novelty items and restaurants inside the DeWitt–Seitz Marketplace. I learned the building housing the marketplace used to be a warehouse, and is a beloved Duluth landmark that began as a manufacturing site in the early 1900's. While walking along Canal Park Drive, I couldn't help but think Duluth would be a picture-perfect postcard town during the holiday season, and imagined the streets decorated with wreaths and festive holiday lights.



I discovered LuLu's Pizza later that evening while in search of a convenient establishment in close proximity to my hotel. I found many of the restaurants along Superior Street were left understaffed following the pandemic. My first stop was a sandwich shop that ended up being not staffed at all, with guests lined up at a register that went unmanned for a substantial amount of time before I decided to leave. LuLu's was not only staffed, but it was a quiet, cozy escape from the bustle of the Waterfront. It had three tables inside the small dining area, with minimalist decor, and wood-fired pizza that was far from minimalist. In keeping with my recently established tradition of trying pizza in each state I visit, my conclusion was that while Minnesota pizza was tasty, it was still not New York pizza.



Day 2: Friday, June 16, 2023


The next morning, I headed down the street to the Starbucks around the corner from the Holiday Inn, and not only grabbed breakfast to dine in, but I grabbed a second breakfast to go that would serve as my race morning fuel the next day. The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon was scheduled to begin bright and early at 6:00 A.M., with shuttle bus departure taking place no later than 5:00 A.M. Working my way backwards in my head, it meant I'd need to be lined up at the buses at 4:30 A.M. after giving myself about 40 minutes to get ready, meaning a 3:45 A.M. wake-up. Knowing nothing would be open that early, brown-bagging a Starbucks breakfast in advance seemed like the most logical choice. I grabbed a second bagel with cream cheese, a banana, an 8-ounce orange juice, and a plastic knife. The baristas got a kick out of the shirt I chose to wear as I was ordering and packing my second breakfast up.

When I returned to the hotel after breakfast, I noticed a very curious button in the elevator labeled "SKYWALK." I had some time to spare before heading to the Essentia Health Fitness Expo at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) to pick up my race packet, so I pressed the SKYWALK button. I landed on the second floor, below the lobby and garage level, and wondered what kind of dystopian labyrinth in the bowels of the hotel I ended up in. It turned out I discovered the greatest thing ever (to me, at least, being a tourist), and I became quite comfortable during my trip making good use of the network of indoor glass tunnels and bridges that serve as a nexus to connect everything in downtown Duluth.


Duluth's Skywalk system is a 3.5-mile grid of weatherproof pedestrian bridges that allow people to traverse the Downtown Waterfront all from the comfort of a climate-controlled environment, and it even crosses I-35 from the Holiday Inn all the way to the DECC and right up to Canal Park. I was absolutely delighted, and slightly obsessed with the concept, now wishing my hometown would implement a Skywalk. I am also slightly embarrassed to admit that as a Star Wars fan and very confident nerd, I could not help but begin gleefully referring to myself as a Skywalker while gallivanting through the tunnels back and forth. Later on, I learned Duluth is not the only Minnesota city to successfully implement the concept of indoor pedestrian bridges — Minneapolis's Skyway pedestrian bridges far exceed the splendor of Duluth's Skywalk, boasting 9.5 miles of pathways covering 80 city blocks in which one could "get happily lost."



The locals of Duluth educated me that the Skywalk also has a dark side, which I got to experience for myself. Aside from being a haven for unsheltered members of the community and addicts, plus the rash of crime that sometimes takes place within the tunnels in the very late and early morning hours before dawn — to include beatings, drug deals, and robberies — I had the misfortune of witnessing tragedy unfold in real time during my visit. While enroute from the Holiday Inn to the DECC for the Expo, I stopped inside the Holiday Inn pedestrian bridge and my blood ran cold when I looked out through the glass. I saw a man perched at the very top of the Holiday Inn parking garage ramp, very precariously teetering on the edge and wildly waving his arms, clearly upset, while a crisis negotiator from the Duluth Police Department stood opposite of him several feet away.

I turned around and looked down at the street, and saw that police had shut down that entire block of Superior Street below, with police vehicles barricading the road. At the foot of the parking garage, a fire truck sat idly, and an ambulance was on standby not far behind it. The whispers of the other pedestrians in the tunnel indicated the man was planning to jump. While the onlookers were mortified and expressed sadness for the man's situation, they also anticlimactically had their cell phones raised or pressed to the glass, capturing video. Parents with young children who were passing through the corridor nervously distracted their children and said things like, "Look at all the police cars down there," deliberately directing their attention away from the crisis while they hurried across the tunnel. I stood and watched for several minutes as another police officer appeared at the top of the parking garage with a soda and handed it to the distressed man. The man dutifully accepted the soda, took a drink, and continued speaking to the negotiator with animated gestures. After about 20 minutes I continued on to the DECC and walked around the Expo, which I'll go into more detail about in the special section below. Upon my return from the Expo and lunch a couple of hours later, the Skywalk was still filled with onlookers and the man was still perched on the edge of the parking garage.


In an unprecedented development, I saw the negotiator instinctively reach out as the man suddenly fell forward, accompanied by a collective gasp of the onlookers in the tunnel. The chatter in the tunnel grew louder with anticipation, and then we saw the man collect himself and climb back up onto the ledge of the ramp. A deflated, disappointed sigh escaped from some of the people watching. About three hours had passed at that point since the crisis began. Deciding I did not want to stick around for the outcome, knowing that if it ended in tragedy it would be unnecessary additional trauma I would be exposing myself to, I walked away. Unfortunately the local media in Duluth later reported the gentleman had indeed ended his life after hours of unsuccessful negotiation.

At around noon, while the crisis negotiation had been in full swing, I'd stopped at Erbert and Gerbert's Sandwich Shop, conveniently located on West 1st Street near the hotel and far enough from the commotion of Superior Street. I was looking for a light lunch that fit within my carb loading plan for the day, and also had the spaghetti dinner to look forward to later. Being a former first responder myself and a first responder spouse — I am always concerned about whether or not first responders are afforded the opportunity to take a break during situations in which they are required to remain on a scene for prolonged periods of time. I was pleased to find two police officers in front of me in line waiting to grab a couple of sandwiches to go.


With nearly the entire police force of Duluth engaged on Superior Street, I was glad it appeared the officers were at least taking turns getting something to eat during what was unquestionably a very stressful shift. After my lunch, I headed back to the DECC for round two of the Expo, which was the very first race expo in my nearly two decades of running that I loved enough to return to more than once in a single weekend. RVs and campers which were housing athletes and their families for the weekend began to fill the parking lot of the DECC. Given how far in advance one must book lodging for this weekend, and how much the mark-up typically is for area hotels, camping in the parking lot is a more affordable alternative for many.



Essentia Health Fitness Expo: Spaghetti Makes the World Go Run


With packet pick-up out of the way during my first trip to the Expo, I was free to roam around and enjoy the exhibits the rest of the afternoon. I immediately prioritized two things: obtaining tickets for Michelina's All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Dinner in advance of the rush, and meeting Kara Goucher. Kara had been scheduled to do a book signing at the Expo, and although I already had a signed copy of her book, The Longest Race back home, I planned to pick up a signed copy for Erin, a Minnesota native and one of my dearest friends, who would be joining me later for the rest of the weekend. Prior to Kara's book signing, I hurried upstairs to the Lake Superior Ballroom, and picked up two tickets for the spaghetti dinner. The ballroom was decked out in red, white, and green, and long banquet tables sat empty in anticipation of thousands of runners that would later be carb loading.



Picking up tickets for the spaghetti dinner early in the afternoon proved to be extremely advantageous, as those who did not purchase tickets in advance and elected to purchase their tickets in the evening before eating dinner ended up waiting in the red-curtained corral to the tune of hundreds of people in line at a time. And I do mean hundreds, as most of the runners brought guests with them. When all was said and done, by the end of the weekend, the organizers estimated 8,000 plates of spaghetti were served. By the time Erin and I walked into the ballroom at around 6:00 P.M., we were able to bypass the line entirely, and enter directly into the banquet after showing our tickets.

Meeting Kara Goucher was one of the absolute most magical experiences of the weekend. Kara, who happens to be a Duluth native, is a two-time U.S. Olympian (2008 and 2012), previous Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon record holder, and best-selling author of The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike's Elite Running Team. I absolutely loved her book, which made me laugh and cry, and I found Kara's story resonated with me deeply in more ways than one. Meeting her in person after reading her story was so surreal.


She was extremely down-to-earth, and patiently entertained my request to take a photo with her after she signed the copy of her book. I can't remember exactly what I said to her because I was so nervous, but I expressed deep gratitude for her vulnerability in sharing her story and thanked her for it. I also mentioned I was an avid listener of the podcast she hosts with Des Linden, Nobody Asked Us. When I envisioned the moment in my head before it was my turn in line to meet her, I imagined sweeping her into a huge hug and crying over the parts of her book that touched me emotionally and telling her how brave she is, but of course that version of the moment only lives on in my imagination.

I allowed the next runner to have their moment with Kara and wandered to visit my favorite exhibitor of the Expo, Trailblazer Food Co., who was serving up the best freeze-dried produce I've ever eaten. Trailblazer is a family-owned small business from Afton, Minnesota, and they spent their time doling out delicious free samples of their fruit and veggie mixes. I sampled a freeze-dried apple, banana, mango, kiwi, and their signature veggie blends, which consisted of the Mediterranean Blend and the Sweet Onion Medley. The produce is preserved at the stage in which it is freshest, and the resulting product is one in which no flavor is lost. It was amazing. After my fill of fruits and veggies I sampled a freeze-dried tofu square, which was a delicious burst of flavor. What was also extraordinary was they offered freeze-dried tater tots, which I'd never seen done before. I ended up walking away with a couple of bags of fruit, the Strawberry Kiwi Mix and the Classic Blend, both of which ended up being perfect post-race snacks.


Sadly, Trailblazer does not ship their products due to logistic constraints that involve red tape with produce prepared locally, so I will have to make a trip back to Minnesota to get ahold of their amazing snacks again (Erin also volunteered to be my covert freeze-dried fruit dealer and mail them to me if necessary). I asked the owners if they considered making an appearance on Shark Tank, and they laughed and said they get that suggestion hundreds of times a day, but have no interest in appearing on television and making a deal with the Sharks. I then checked out the section of the Expo displaying Grandma's Marathon and Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon merchandise, deciding I wasn't going to buy anything, until I tried on a Garry Bjorklund hoodie that had my name on it after all. Between Trailblazer, the Garmin booth, the OOFOS booth, and the half marathon merchandise, Grandma's Weekend had officially sucked me in.



Finally, and most important of all, was my reunion with Erin. She had been one of my best friends and my roommate while we served together on active duty in the Marine Corps, and I was beyond excited to reconnect with my ride-or-die battle buddy after ten years. Not only had she been my roommate in the barracks at Camp Pendleton, but we deployed together to Afghanistan from 2009 - 2010, where we shared a tent with the 8 other women in our unit. We arranged to meet each other at the entrance of the Lake Superior Ballroom, and when we saw each other for the first time that day, we were both overwhelmed with emotion and started sobbing when we hugged.


There were so many laughs and tears throughout the trip, catching up on a decade of lost time. We gorged ourselves on spaghetti, breadsticks, and ice cream at the spaghetti dinner before the race, visited Gooseberry Falls State Park after the race, walked along Lake Superior together swapping stories, sharing closely held secrets, talking about our jobs and families, and hopes for the future. Neither of us were prepared for how emotional we would be during the reunion, and it was so cathartic and wonderful, which made it that much more difficult for me to leave at the end of the weekend.



A Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon Ghost Story: The Lost Toilets of the Land of 10,000 Lakes

Race Day: Saturday, June 17, 2023


While the race on everyone's bucket list, Grandma's Marathon, was celebrating 47 years running, the festivities of its equally esteemed half marathon counterpart, the 33rd Annual Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, began in the dark early morning hours of June 17th, 2023, before the sun came up. This would be State #11 for me on my 50 states journey. I was awake long before my alarm went off at 3:45 A.M. This time last year, almost to the exact day, I was running in the Anchorage Mayor's Half Marathon, dubbed "the marathon of the midnight sun." Duluth is 3,133 miles away from Anchorage, and yet, on this race morning of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, the weather conditions and humidity were reminiscent of Alaska, with an eerie fog blanketing Lake Superior. At 4:30 A.M., the temperature was a damp 52° F, the humidity was about 81%, and the wind, thankfully, was non-existent.

The weather that morning was what I considered my ideal race conditions, and I decided on a T-shirt and shorts. I took a hot shower to quickly warm up my core temperature before getting dressed, and could not get my hair to cooperate. I hated it, and it made me think of what I'd read in Des Linden's book, Choosing to Run, when she describes how she felt about her hair before she later went on to win the Boston Marathon: "I felt exactly the way my hair looked, like shit," she had said, and the thought made me laugh. I suddenly felt less worried about my hair. I had a throw-away long sleeved cotton shirt I pulled on over my T-shirt, and planned to discard it at the start line when we were ready to take off. The race organizers strongly advised bringing throw-away layers to wear on the 20-minute bus ride and while hanging out in the start corral, since Minnesota mornings get chilly. All clothing discarded on the course would be donated by the volunteers to Goodwill. The walk from my hotel to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center bus loading area was a little over half a mile, and, wanting to stay warm for as long as possible, I hurried down the corridors of the Skywalk instead of walking the half mile outside on the streets of downtown Duluth.


I was fortunate that other runners were in the tunnels with me, since it was very early in the morning and, according to the locals, not the safest route of passage during that time of day. Although I was very aware of my mortality in that moment and knew I wasn't invincible, I wore my identity as a street-smart New Yorker as an armor to brave the tunnels while surrounded by the darkness outside the glass. I had my running shoes on and I was prepared to use them if necessary to escape the boogeyman.


The buses began departing at 5:00 A.M. from the convention center, and for those who could not make it onto a bus that wasn't full, an optional participant train was offered, which also departed at 5:00 A.M. While on the bus, I drank my fancy Starbucks orange juice I'd purchased the morning before, and carefully spread cream cheese on my bagel, which I had packed the night before in a brown paper bag along with a banana. I was thanking myself for planning ahead and knew I would have been starving and under-fueled at the start otherwise, with nothing being open that early. I looked around at the other runners on the bus, also eating their pre-race fuel which they'd thoughtfully packed ahead of time.


The bus dropped us off approximately 13.1 miles northeast from downtown Duluth on Highway 61, and we were about halfway between Duluth and Two Harbors. Technically it was still Duluth township, but closer to Two Harbors if we're being honest. The bus drop-off was one-third of a mile from the start corral, which was at the intersection of Greenwood Road and Highway 61. At the bus drop-off, there were four porta-potties lined up in the tall, wet grass, and they were resting awkwardly in a horizontal row, perpendicular to the road across a small downward incline, which made the first two porta-potties sit elevated sideways at a severe angle.


A gentleman in line for the bathroom muttered, "Good luck with that," when he saw a man with a horrified look on his face exit the most severely angled porta-potty, followed by an apprehensive woman who was next in line to enter it. I hoped I wouldn't end up with that one, because the violent angle in which it sat screamed pee everywhere except in the toilet. I high-stepped through the wet grass and hopped in line, while a volunteer with a bullhorn shouted every 30 seconds or so, "Go-o-o-o-d morning, runners!" followed by, "There are more porta-potties at the start corral! Keep walking!"


Seeing as there were approximately 9,000 runners for the half marathon being unloaded by the buses into the start corral, I took my chances with the first line of porta-potties, not knowing how long the lines would be down the road. I glanced at the clusters of hundreds of runners passing those of us in the grass, being herded forward to the corral. This line was manageable, with less than 10 people ahead of me, and we had about forty minutes until the race started. I looked out at Lake Superior, and saw the fog had begun to dissipate as the sun came out.



When I made the trek down the road to the start line and found my pace group, I felt validated knowing my guess would be correct — the lines for the porta-potties at the start were insane. As you can see in the photo above, there were so many runners that the people waiting in the corral to start were nearly indistinguishable from the people actually in line to use the porta-potties. The announcer informed us over the speakers that our chip time would begin when we crossed the start timing mat, so those still in line for the porta-potty would not have to worry about starting their race late. No, thank you... I was happy I went at the bus stop, despite the volunteer enthusiastically ushering us towards these porta-potties. I had a sense of foreboding that this was an indication the lines on the race course would be long and terrible.

Music blasted from the speakers, and volunteers handed out mylar space blankets — or heat sheets — for us to wrap ourselves in until we got going. I stood off to the side, shivering in my space blanket, while thousands of runners continued to file past me, filling in the pace groups in the start corral. There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving as runners tried to squeeze where they could fit in, and it reminded me of the crowded start I experienced in Las Vegas back in February, except this start corral was much better organized. And the space blankets automatically made this chilly start a better experience. The chaos of the start corral came to an abrupt halt when the National Anthem began. At precisely 6:00 A.M., the race kicked off and we half-shuffled toward the start until every runner not waiting in line for the bathroom crossed the timing mat. The majority of the course ran south down Highway 61 along Lake Superior, until around mile 10, when we began to enter downtown Duluth.


Throughout the entire course, the crowd support was phenomenal, and the organization and number of aid stations were the best I've ever experienced on any course, especially for a large race. I have been accustomed to aid stations approximately every 2 miles or so, but the Garry Bjorklund Half generously had an aid station nearly every mile. In between the sanctioned aid stations, locals came out and were grilling steaks and ribs, offering us water and electrolyte drinks of their own, fresh fruit, and various forms of sports nutrition. One runner later reported snagging a BBQ rib on the course. The Duluth residents and volunteers held up the usual gamut of humorous signs and cheered every runner on. Duluth delivered.

Mile 4 is where my chip time, quite literally, went in the toilet. I had to pee (again), which was unusual for me to go more than once at the beginning of a race, but I decided my options were to suffer now or later when it came to the porta-potty line. If I held out until mile 8 or 9, the lines would be just as bad, the temperature would be warmer, and at that point I'd likely be desperate. Many runners made the same calculations, and despite warnings from the race organizers for runners not to urinate in the woods or in people's yards, the men decided to take matters into their own hands, peeling away from the race course to answer nature's call in the middle of nature. We were surrounded by trees lining both sides of the course, so the men had many options. I did not see any brave women deviate from the course to pee in the woods. Conversely, if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

My bathroom pit stop added 11 minutes to my official finish time. The bottom line is there were not enough water closets at each location, and for 9,000 half marathon runners (16,357 total participants when the full marathoners joined us on the course), there were two porta-potties every two miles with lines that exceeded a ten minute wait at each stop. Hopefully in the future this is something that is addressed, as it's my only complaint about an otherwise totally spectacular event.


When I was a little over halfway into my race, I took a photo to mark the time in which the full marathoners joined us on the course at 7:45 A.M., and (presumably) by that time, the elite runners would be catching up to me and then lapping me by 13 miles. This was the only time in a race in which elite runners would be behind me, and I thought it would be fun to capture the moment in a photo. When I later finished my race, Erin and I managed to catch the first group of the elite men finishing their race, and watching athletes work that hard for that long is something I will always be amazed by. We saw the first place, second place and third place male finishers for the full marathon claim their spots on the podium and cheered for them. The women were not far behind them, however by the time they came around the bend we were already at the finisher's festival.


The first 5 miles of the course consisted of rolling hills, which to many were probably imperceptible, but I felt them. Anyone who says this is a "flat course" is lying to you. It's not flat, but it's not uncomfortable, either, and even though I felt the gradual inclines and declines, my momentum was consistent the entire way until Lemon Drop Hill. The abundance of aid stations ensured I was able to follow my pre-planned nutrition and electrolyte strategy to the letter, so I never actually felt depleted and did not hit "the wall" this time. At mile 9, we reached the infamous Lemon Drop Hill which is the steepest grade on the course. As we crested Lemon Drop Hill, we ran under a sign that encouraged us with, "Only 4.1 miles to go, great job runners!"


After Lemon Drop Hill destroyed my calves and quads, I anxiously chewed a couple of salt tablets to relieve the cramping as I rolled into mile 10. We then came up onto London Road and rounded a couple of corners onto Superior Street, entering the heart of downtown Duluth. There was a giant billboard-sized television screen set up off to the side, where loved ones of runners sent them videos of encouragement as they passed by. Many of us passing by and watching the recorded motivational videos got teary-eyed. I thought this was a beautiful surprise for those runners whose loved ones made the videos for them, and who needed the encouragement this close to the finish. I was almost sobbing even though the videos were for other people! I loved that the race organizers planned this on the course.


Mile 11 culminated with passing Essentia Health St. Mary's Medical Center, and I welcomed the sight of familiar landmarks on Superior Street such as Duluth Coffee Company and Pizza Lucè, which I'd passed by on my exploratory walk the day before. Downtown, the crowds were roaring on both sides of the road, and as volunteers directed runners to keep to the left side of the road, the wheelchair participants whizzed past us on the right at impressive speeds that defied the laws of physics. One of the wheelchair participants went on to break a Guinness World Record.

When we hit mile 12, we passed the train depot, where the train dedicated to shuttling participants to the start had departed just hours earlier. As we looped around Amsoil Arena and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, I knew the finish line had to be around there somewhere... we had to be close, since I'd just seen the finish line getting set up the previous day while wandering around the Canal Park District. At this point, thousands of people lined the streets, and Erin later told me she was there somewhere on the side watching me in the crowd and that I had been in the zone. I was grinning through pain as I passed by the final photographer before the finish line. Erin said she saw me round the corner at the DECC, and then she was there waiting for me after I crossed the finish on Canal Park Drive.


Crossing the finish was a blur, and I remember trying to figure out where to pick up my official race T-shirt after I was christened with my medal. It's a Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon tradition that the finisher shirt design is kept secret prior to race weekend, so it was a pleasant treat to finally see my shirt when I picked it up at the tent in the end of the finishers' corral. I decided I would wear it on the flight home as badge of honor. In order to keep the tradition alive of the design being known only to those who finish the race, the shirt design will remain secret and not shared here... if you know, you know!



After exiting the finishers' corral, Erin and I walked around DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace for a few minutes before heading to the lively outdoor finishers' festival on the waterfront. We ended the morning with breakfast burritos, outstanding coffee from Duluth Coffee Company, and split a positively enormous freshly made "kitchen sink cookie" and had zero regrets. During our emotional goodbye, we promised not to let another ten years go by before we saw each other again.


While at the Duluth International Airport on my way home, preparing to board my flight to Chicago, I was approached by another runner who introduced herself as Katie. She had just seen my update about the race posted in the 50 Half Marathons in 50 States Facebook Group, and wanted to say hello. The Garry Bjorklund Half was her second half, and she just began her 50 states journey. It was an absolute pleasure meeting another 50 Stater at the airport, and made my day! Wherever you are, Katie, I wish you so much luck on your journey, and hope to run into you again at a future race! If my travels manage to take me back to Duluth, this is a weekend I'd do over and over again.



LODGING:

Holiday Inn & Suites Duluth-Downtown

200 W 1st Street, Duluth MN 55802


Happy running and safe travels,

Stefanie




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