Latest reviews by Stephanie

"A recap of the 2016 Boston Marathon "
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Race Management

I suppose you could say that I’ve been running since seventh grade. But I considered (still do, quite honestly) myself a soccer player and my primary reason for participating in track & field at that age was to get out of class and hang out with my friends.

A left knee injury in a high school soccer game left me with about as much leg strength as a baby chick—not ideal for a left striker. After reconstructive surgery and a short-lived attempt to play soccer collegiately, I wandered into the office of Albion College track and field coach Hayden Smith.

I was a sprinter at Albion but it was Coach Smith who made me aware of the Boston Marathon, one of the world’s most prestigious road races. Coach Smith has run more than 75 marathons—including a 2:30:37 in the 1979 Boston Marathon, and thanks to him I’ve always had the race in the back of my mind.

My first marathon was the 2002 Detroit Free Press Marathon and I only signed up for that race because my college roommate talked me into it. Lesson learned? You need to do marathon training runs longer than eight miles unless you want to walk like a cowboy who just got off a full day on a horse in the weeks following the race.

Over the course of the next 13 years, I completed nine marathons in eight different states (and the District of Columbia) including the 2015 Fargo Marathon, where I crossed the finish line at 3:30:45. Fargo was the reason why I found myself staring dumbly at a bellhop in a Boston hotel at 5 a.m. on April 18.

The bellhop was telling me for a third time in a Boston accent thicker than tomato paste what lines to take on the MBTA subway to get to the official Boston Marathon shuttle buses. My look of touristy bewilderment was both obvious and pathetic.

The bellhop was saved from my navigational ineptitude by Stephen, an older gentleman who happened to be walking past.

“Are you trying to get to the marathon bus?”

I nodded.

“That’s where I’m headed,” he said cheerfully. “Follow me.”

Stephen was a Boston Marathon veteran from St. Catharines, Ontario. I spent the next five hours with him and we chatted about running and NHL hockey as we made our way from bus-to-subway-to-shuttle and finally to the athletes’ village in Hopkinton. There, the two of us sat alongside thousands of other runners in the grassy staging area behind Hopkinton High School.

I ate a cinnamon raisin bagel and did my best to ignore the sharpshooters perched on top of the high school buildings, another consequence of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Stephen was applying sunscreen to his ears and neck.

“So, tell me what I should expect today,” I said.

He told me about the quad-shredding downhill portion at the start of the race and the iconic Heartbreak Hill

I’d been dealing with a nagging foot injury for the past couple of months—which is nothing new, as anyone who has known me for at least 15 minutes will tell you. I’ve been a regular on the disabled list since my junior year of high school in 1999, when I tore my left ACL in the varsity soccer district championship final against hated rival Roscommon high school.

My Canadian friend encouraged me to not worry about my race pace but rather to “experience Boston the first time, run it the second time and race it the third time.”

This made me feel better, as I had already given up on my original time goal thanks to a left foot that would file charges for abuse if it could talk. In the weeks leading up to the race, I’d even strongly consider not taking part.

We walked to starting area together but were assigned to different starting corrals, so Stephen and I exchanged a high-five and went our separate ways.

With an official temperature of 69 degrees for the start of the women’s elite race at 9:32 a.m., it was obviously going to be much hotter than anyone anticipated.

It was 72 degrees by the time the third wave (mine) hit the ground running at 11 a.m. I hadn’t run in those kinds of temperatures in at least six months and it only took a couple of miles to know that this was going to be even tougher than I imagined.

I usually only stop for water every fourth or fifth mile during a marathon, but for Boston I stopped every mile and even then it was hard to stay hydrated. It seemed like every other participant was doing the same thing, inhaling Gatorade while they dumped cups of water on their head.

I think that the heat, coupled with the infamous grind of the 26.2-mile course, made things difficult for a lot of runners.

I had to stop at a medical tent to have the wrap removed from my foot and by the midway point my goal had changed from crossing the finish line in under four hours to finishing the race.

I ran most of the race in quite a bit of pain, which was not the best decision according to my orthopedic surgeon, but I’d still say it was worth it. Who knows if I’ll qualify again and make it back to Boston?

I listened to my iPod at first, but took out my earbuds along the way because I really enjoyed the enthusiasm from the crowds that lined both sides of the course for the entire 26.2 miles. The path from Hopkinton to Boston weaves through several rural New England towns, where the residents cheered like they were watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Heartbreak Hill is the last of the four hills in the town of Newton and it’s called that for good reason, as the hill climbs 80 feet over the span of about half a mile. I’m happy to say that it didn’t break my heart and I was able to tackle the hill without stopping or needing to walk.

There were tons of spectators and amped up college students blasting music from speakers and shouting words of encouragement to let me and the other runners know that the rest was all downhill.

From the first mile to the last mile people were offering runners everything from orange slices to popsicles, pretzel sticks to licorice and coconut water to beer.

I enjoyed the last miles and crossed the finish line in 4:10. It wasn’t the time that I was initially hoping for, but given my sore foot and the heat, I was content with my effort and more than ready to STOP running.

I’m still sore more than a week later, but it is well worth it. The crowd support was unbelievable and being surrounded by so many talented and dedicated runners was a surreal experience.

It was also a lot of fun to wear my Boston Marathon souvenir jacket around the city the day after the race. I can’t tell you how many total strangers came up to me just to say congratulations.

The Boston Marathon is often referred to as the Olympics for the normal runner and I’m happy that I was one of the 26,639 marathoners who crossed the Boylston threshold last Monday. I hope I can re-qualify so I’ll have the opportunity to “run” Boston next time.

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"Post-race reaction to the Scheels Fargo Marathon"
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Race Management

Back in December I got it in my head that I wanted to do another (or perhaps, one last) marathon. I spent an evening researching upcoming races on the iPad and determined that there were three or four marathons that met my requirements:

Late spring
Reasonably priced
Within driving distance (less than six hours each way)

I settled on the Scheels Fargo Marathon. The race was May 9 (late enough for me), it was only $80 if you signed up early and Fargo is only about 3.5 hours away from where I live.

I also knew a couple of people who had run either the half or the full in recent years and they both spoke very highly of the race.

So, I signed up and once the money for the registration fee and hotel room disappeared from my bank account, I committed myself to four solid months of training.

I won’t bore you with a mile-by-mile account of my preparation for Fargo; just know that I ran a lot of miles and didn't drink nearly as much beer or eat nearly as much Lucky Charms as I normally would have.

So flash-forward five months and you’ll get to me leaving work about two hours early on May 8 and heading north on I-29 to Fargo. I’m convinced that Fargo means “the coldest place on Earth” in a dead language because Fargo is the coldest place on Earth. They were predicting temps in the low 30’s at the start and winds gusting between 20-25 mph throughout the morning of the race.

I got to the FargoDome (the marathon currently features an indoor start and finish) a little bit before 7 p.m. Upon entry, runners were greeted with free popcorn and tons of free samples.

The place was jam-packed with runners and it took me a while to weave my way down to the main floor for packet pickup. The first thing that I noticed at packet pickup was that there weren’t any goodies in the goody bag (PERK: the goody bag is a very nice Under Armour drawstring bag). The bag didn’t have any of those annoying fliers for upcoming races or coupons for a sports massage or orthotics that 99% of runners deposit in their hotel room’s trash can. Don’t get me wrong; there was tons of free stuff—but you just had to walk around the expo area to find what you wanted. Plus the environmentally-friendly Fargo staff offered runners a cyber race bag:

Back to the race expo. One booth had massages. Another had kinesiology tape. Dakota Style was handing out free single serving and full-sized bags of chips. There were several booths with the standard race expo fare: running gear, shoes and sunglasses. They also sold beer (which I really wanted, but managed to walk away from).

One table I stopped at before climbing back up the FargoDome stairs (it did not occur to me at the time that I would have to climb these stairs the next day after I crossed the finish line) I stopped by the pace group table. I’m a lone wolf and one of those people who truly dislikes running with other people—but I’m also quite terrible at pacing myself so I was willing to at least look into running with a pack. I was told that all I had to do was find the pace group that I wanted to join and, well, try to keep up.

My pre-race meal was at Shotgun Sally’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Saloon, a well-known spot in Fargo. There was a 30-40 minute wait, which wasn’t ideal, but my boyfriend and I were able to squeeze into the bar for a beer while we waited for our table. I had the Mustang Sally (a very good Cajun chicken and pasta dish).
My hotel in Fargo wasn’t anything to write home about, but it clean and the front desk attendant agreed to let me to check out an hour later the following day (which meant that I could hopefully shower after the race).

I set three separate alarms on my phone for the 7:30 a.m. start, but I was up a little after five.

I was hoping to get to the starting area by 6:45 a.m., but marathon traffic was really backed up (to be expected; but nerve-wracking nonetheless).

I got inside of the FargoDome a few minutes before seven---plenty of time to stretch---but was stupid and decided to use the restroom. That was a very dumb move on my part. I stood in line for more than 15 minutes and by the time I shuffled down the FargoDome steps and said goodbye to my boyfriend it was 7:20.

When I got down to the main floor I was at the very back of the pack. I decided that it was more important to get to a better starting position than to stretch, so I weaseled my way through about 1,200 people and made it to the 3:30 pace group just as they were beginning to play the national anthem.
I found the five or so minutes before the start of the race surprisingly loud and a little overwhelming. We were surrounded by thousands of cheering people: family and friends of runners, plus all the half marathoners that would be following us 30 minutes later; that combined with the pre-race announcements and all the different songs escaping the headphones of the runners around me, it was a lot to take in.

I was really worried about the wind. I had planned on wearing shorts but at the last minute threw a pair of Under Armour tights and a long-sleeved shirt in my suitcase. Thank goodness for that. There’s no way I would have been able to finish the race in shorts and a t-shirt.

It was 32 degrees at the start. On May 9. That’s cold. I couldn’t get my hands warm and definitely wasn’t overdressed.

I had debated in the days leading up to the race whether or not I wanted to listen to music. I didn’t have music for my last marathon (2014 Maryville) because I failed to realize that an iPod doesn’t charge if you close the lid of your laptop. It turns out that I didn’t miss it that much. But my boss convinced me that I would go crazy if I spent the entire race listening to birds or talking to myself, so I bought a new iPod shuffle with some leftover Christmas gift cards.

The start was a little uncomfortable thanks to a bottle neck created by a whole bunch of people trying to run out of a not very big opening; it almost felt like you were being shot like a rubber band once you got outside and everyone spread out.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Fargo is an incredibly well-organized race. The different routes for the full, half and 10 K were clearly marked and traffic was kept at bay. Not once did I come across a situation where vehicles were too close for comfort.

I settled in and decided that my goal was to stick with pacer Taylor and the 3:30 group as long as I could. Throughout my training, I’d logged the majority of my miles at an 8-8:15 minute mile pace. There were about 12-15 runners at any given portion of the race who were running with the 3:30 gang.

Back to the race. The spectators were great. Tons of really clever signs: my favorite was a sign that read “Do You Want Me To Pull You Now?” that was next to the fluffiest Husky dog you’ll ever lay eyes on. There was a guy dressed as Elvis, a high school marching band and enough cow bells to make Mississippi State football fans jealous.

Water and Powerade stations had volunteers on both sides, so you didn’t have to weave to one side or the other. Energy gels were given out in the second half of the race, along with orange slices, Jolly Ranchers and beer (cheers, Fargo Brewing Company!).

The marathon route took runners to the campuses of Minnesota State-Moorhead and Concordia College, where runners were greeted by balloons, banners, a Dragon and a giant corncob (MSU-Moorhead and Concordia’s mascots, respectively). The corncob gave me a fist-bump, which I believe is a sign of forthcoming good luck in many countries.

I felt great for the first half of the race, other than the fact that I never could feel my fingers. Taylor was an excellent pacer. We hit the halfway point at 1:44:45, or 15 seconds faster than a 3:30 pace. I knew that the Boston qualifying standard for my age group (18-34) was 3:35, so after the halfway point my plan was to keep up with Taylor as long as I could, knowing that every mile with the 3:30 group would bank me a few seconds in case I slipped back to the 3:35 crowd. As long as I finished ahead of the 3:35 group I knew I’d be okay.

Fargo is known as a very flat race. And if that’s what you’re looking for, I highly recommend it. There were only two or three times when we chugged up an incline that made your quads burn. But a couple of the downhill segments are hard on the knees.

But it’s also known for being a wind tunnel. The wind really started to pick up in the last hour of the race and a lack of trees in Fargo gives runners no place to hide. The wind finally got to me around mile 22 and I had to slow down. My last four-plus miles were about 25 seconds slower than the first 20 miles, but I managed to keep the 3:30 group in sight.

At mile 24 I let myself relax because I knew that unless I got hit by a car or blew my Achilles heel that I was going to clock a Boston qualifying time. I qualified back in 2006 (nine years and three knee surgeries ago) but that was well before the BAA made its qualifying standards more stringent (five minutes 59 seconds faster across all age divisions, as the 59-second buffer zone for each age group was also eliminated).

I took my headphones off for the last 1.2 miles and did my best to enjoy the moment. I finished in 3:30:45.

Prepare for a coughing fit after you cross the finish line in the FargoDome, as lungs suddenly exposed to dry and stale air after sucking in cold air for hours are unhappy lungs. The post-race spread included pizza, cookies, donuts, bagels, bananas and plenty of water and chocolate milk. I grabbed a carton of chocolate milk and limped to a lightly populated corner of the FargoDome, where I proceeded to lay down.

Climbing back up the stairs to the bag drop was as much fun as slamming your pinky in a car door, but the good news is that Fargo’s bag drop set-up is terrific and it takes no time for them to find your gear.
I found my boyfriend in the crowd and we left after a couple of post-race photos. Prepare to spend 20-45 minutes waiting to get out of the parking lot (at least we did). I was even more happy that I finished in 3:30 instead of closer to 4:00 because even with the post-race traffic jam we were still able to get back to the hotel in time for me to get a quick shower.

In summary. Great race, great crowds, great gear, great food. The traffic congestion is annoying but it’s nothing that you won’t find at almost every other large marathon. If you can tolerate wind and not perfect race conditions, I highly recommend the Scheels Fargo Marathon.

Race Results:

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"The 2014 Coca-Cola Classic 5K & 10K"
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Race Management

There aren't a lot of races in South Dakota once the calendar flips to November so I found myself driving to Sioux City early Saturday morning to take a stab at the Coca-Cola Classic 5K/10K. The race was very well organized and I was able to get my bib number and race sweatshirt within a couple of minutes. I was stuck with a size medium sweatshirt, but with raceday registration you take what you can get. The 5K and 10K were supposed to start at 10 a.m., but the kiddie race took a bit longer than expected and it was about 10:15 before the gun went off and there were a lot of cold people jumping up and down. The race was nice and flat as advertised and I settled in just behind the lead pack. The wind was howling at a 20-25 mile per hour clip so it was obviously not going to be a PR day. I covered the first mile in 7:02 and was in third place among the ladies (I thought; it isn't always easy to tell when everyone is wearing a beanie or stocking hat). I knew that I'd finish second at best because there was a lady that just blazed through the first mile and I had no shot of catching her. The race started at the Four Seasons health club and was an out and back loop on the Floyd River Trail. The loop took us right past the rendering plants: the registration form called it "an unobstructed view of the industrial side of Sioux City" but what was obstructed was my ability to breathe for a good four or five minutes. It smelled terrible and I couldn't get past that stretch fast enough. I moved into second place around the 1.5 mile mark and managed to hold her off on the back loop. The overall make winner finished in 18:38 and the overall female won in 21:38. I came in at 22:24, not bad for my first race since the Maryville Marathon in June but I had hoped for something in the 20-21 range. It took almost an hour before the awards ceremony got going but that wasn't as annoying as it usually would have been because Four Seasons was nice enough to let the runners use their shower facilities. It was so nice to drive home in clean clothes. The post race food spread was top notch: Coca-Cola products, bagels, fruit, applesauce, yogurt, Veggie straws, pretzels and three sheet cakes. I let with a good-looking medal and a full stomach. Great overall presentation by the Missouri River Runners. I'd run the race again (even with the stinky stretch).

Race results:

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