Race Report: Fargo Marathon Weekend

May 20-21, 2016
Fargo, ND
Marathon #16 (State #11)
Events #98-99

I had no business running a marathon last weekend.

None.

The reasons I did so are listed in my previous post, but I was massively under-trained.

After my back-to-back full marathons in October, I took a prolonged off-season (where I did next to nothing), followed by a bronchitis that took over 7 weeks to clear up (where I did absolutely nothing), followed by looking for excuses to do even more “not much of anything”. Occasionally, I would hop on the bike trainer for 30-45 minutes, but I almost never touched the treadmill.

In the 7 months since the Des Moines Marathon, I ran both Disney/Star Wars half-marathons (which are more “events” than races as I jog from photo stop to photo stop), along with the 10k and 5k run/walks that were part of those two weekends. Aside from that, I did a winter 10 miler and a winter 5k (both part of the TC In Motion Summit Challenge running series. Both were painful). Aside from that, I might have done a 5k training run every couple of weeks or so. Basically, I wasn’t trained for the half marathons or the 10 miler…and it showed.

I “upgraded” my Fargo Half Marathon to the Full Marathon mostly out of nostalgia (“Stupid is what Stupid does”). When I did Des Moines, I was considering that it could be my final marathon. Over the winter, I came to the conclusion that my marathon days were behind me. That said, I felt a little sad about that. A sentimental part of me wanted to do it one last time, knowing that this would be the final time. I upgraded with less than a month to go. I immediately regretted it as I was in no shape to run a marathon. I started “training” with about three weeks to marathon day. It wasn’t pretty. I basically tried a few times to do a “long run”. The best I did was 9 miles with a handful of 10k and 5k thrown in. Finally, with 2 weeks before race day, I completed a very slow 18 miler. It would have to do. I did a few more 5k and a 10k slow runs leading to race weekend.

I live about 3 hours away from Fargo, and this race had always been on my bucket list of races to run. The course is very flat, and Fargo has a cute little college town charm. The course winds through neighborhoods, downtown streets, 3 college campuses, some bike paths along the Red River and crosses the river into Moorhead Minnesota. The expo was held on the floor of the FargoDome which would also be the start and finish lines for almost all of the races (indoor start and finish for the marathon, half marathon, and 10k).

I drove up on Friday morning and headed to the expo. It was your typical mid-sized expo. It had the normal array of vendors, groups promoting their own events, samples, and the official event merchandise store. I only picked up a cotton Fargo Marathon T-shirt for $10 (I have a ton of technical fabric finishers gear, but it’s nice to have a few basic Cotton shirts for day-to-day wear) and an event poster for $10 (I usually don’t get these, but I had plans for it).

I checked in for the marathon (bib, timing chip, 1/4 zip long sleeve tech shirt, Under Armour Event Bag). The 5k registration desk was nowhere to be found. When I asked about it, the vague response I received was “somewhere upstairs”. I go upstairs and wander around (there are no signs giving directions) and eventually found it on one of the concourses in front of one of the arenas entrance. Got my bib, chip and shirt, but no bag (one per registration…and since I was doing the challenge, I only registered once). I asked a volunteer where the starting line for the 5k was being staged…and I got a blank stare. She asked the others, and nobody at packet pick up knew where the race was starting (answer: just outside the doors they were standing in front of all day…in the arena parking lot).

These are examples of my biggest complaint about this event…multiple organizational blunders. This race is 12 years old, and has 15,000 participants, but volunteers have no idea where packet pick up is held, or where races start, and there was no signage to help. There was also no course map ever printed for the 5k (Edit: there was one buried on the website, but not in the guide or printed up like all the other races were). The whole thing seemed amateurish and disorganized. This was a recurring theme all weekend.

I then went in search of the charity I was running for. A post popped up on the Fargo Marathon FB page indicating that runners running for a charity would get a bonus medal. I looked at the charities and I signed up to run for a local animal rescue (and I made a donation). I received an email prior to the race stating that I could pick up a running bib before the race to help promote the charity during the race. I inquired about it at the race information booth…and I got the Fargo Blank Stare (I was getting used to this look). The volunteers at the event information booth directed me to ask about it at the volunteer check in booth (seriously?). I eventually just stumbled onto a small booth next to the “bib number lookup” table with a sign that stated “charity runners”. The booth was unmanned and empty. More disorganization…

Mark Allen (6 time Ironman World Champion) was a keynote speaker at 4pm. I asked where it was located at the “info booth”. Fargo Blank Stare. They didn’t even know there was a talk. They pulled out the race booklet and found out that it was on the second floor. I head up there and find…nothing. There were four conference rooms with no signs indicating where, when or who would be speaking (more disorganization). Eventually, others wandered upstairs and we just started entering random rooms until we found one that looked like it was setup for the talk.

At 4pm, Mark showed up and gave a great 1 hour presentation. Many in attendance were Ironman finishers who were eager to hear someone who had such success in these events. After the talk, I had the chance to meet him, get a photo and got an autograph on the event poster. Great souvenir for me from this event!

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By that time, the 5k was starting to line up. I did a quick change into running gear and headed to the starting line. The organizers made an attempt to keep the runners and walkers separate…they even had separate staging areas and a separate starting line for walkers, and volunteers were clearly holding up signs for the different paces. It helped a little…but I still ended up with a lot of walkers around me.

I lined up towards the back of the 25-30 minute coral. As soon as we passed the starting line, we had 2 sharp turns which was a huge bottleneck and it slowed everyone down. We then turned onto a side street. Unfortunately, that side street was very narrow, and had parked cars on both side of the road. The remaining path was about wide enough for a car to drive through…and way too narrow for 6500 runners…and there were small area areas of construction as well. For the first mile, I walked a lot (and even stood still from time to time). By mile two, things started to loosen up and I was able to run the rest of the way.

Fargo 5k Finish Time – 30:06.

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After the race, I got my water and medal (very nice medal for a 5k!) I went back to the expo and there was still nobody at the volunteer runner booth. There was a box with the “charity runner” medals in it. It looked like somebody had broken into the box and there were multiple medal 50 count packs in the box…one of which was torn open. I ended up just taking a medal and leaving. I figured that they would be on the arena floor at the start of the race or at the finish line. They weren’t. If I did not help myself to the medal, I never would have received it. Another sign of the disorganization that permeated this event…

I then left the FargoDome and headed to Noodles & Company for some carbs (huge lineup at the restaurant). After I headed to the hotel and realized that there was construction (bulldozers and jackhammers) right outside my room window. Despite my complaints to the hotel (Fargo Inn and Suites), the construction continued well past 10:30 pm. I got about 3 hours sleep.

I was up early on marathon morning. Coffee, small breakfast and headed to the FargoDome. As always, I was about the first one there. I got a prime parking spot just in front of the arena’s front door. Once the doors opened, I headed inside and watched as the runners filtered in and the anticipation start to build. There was an indoor bag drop, indoor bathrooms, and real seats, so the indoor venue was a massive perk.

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In time, marathon runners were permitted onto the floor to line up for the start the of the race. Once we had lined up, the half marathoners and the 10k runners filtered down. I decided to join one of the slowest pace groups…5:30 finish time. I met a fellow Marathon Maniac (65 years old, and finishing off his 50 marathon/50 states quest). He also planned to run slowly (and doing intervals…run 2 minutes, walk 30 seconds). We started running together and it was a nice distraction as I was hoping to be able to talk with someone to help the time pass. The race started and we headed out (a little faster than a 5:30 pace). The weather at the start was ideal (high 50’s, sunny, light breeze), but I knew it would heat up.

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The first few miles let the runners thin out. The starting leg was through residential neighborhoods, and was a different route than the half marathoners and 10k runners, lightening the course congestion for everyone. After awhile, we ended up on a bike path along the Red River then crossed a bridge into Minnesota. The course then headed towards University of Minnesota-Moorhead campus. We did a loop through campus followed by more bike trails. By this point, I was getting hot, tired and I was fading fast. I had started fading by mile 10 and hit the wall by mile 15. I had expected this, but it was discouraging to feel this bad this soon. Also, by this point, the sun was climbing in the sky and the mercury was climbing fast. It was well into the low seventies by this point.

A few comments about the course. The organizers did a pretty good job of showing off their community and there was a nice variety of scenery. Course support was average (aid stations every 2 miles until mile 20, then every mile), with two GU stations. Crowd support was pretty good with lots of candy, water, signs, and beer. Photographers were sparse, but the entertainment wasn’t…58 bands on the marathon course.

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Miles 15-20 was a painful slog. My new best friend kept me moving forward (I told him to run his own race, but he indicated that he didn’t care about his finish time and kept me going). At mile 18, we changed the intervals to 2 minute run, one minute walk. At mile 20, I waved him off as I was really slowing him down, and I really was starting to feel that I couldn’t continue with the structured intervals.

It was very hot my then (80F) and my lack of sleep was hitting me hard. I started breaking up the remaining distances into the smallest possible sections…the next block, the next tree, the end of the current song, etc. I glanced a few times at my watch and thought that I might be able to avoid a personal worst. I was guzzling the power aid and pouring water over my head at every aid station. I had stopped sweating…which is an ominous sign. The miles ticked down more and more slowly.

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I had wondered what I would be feeling at this point of the race. I signed up for it out of nostalgia. I wondered it I would be questioning my decision to sign up for this race, or my questioning my decision to stop running marathons after this event. Would it be sad or bittersweet?

Nope. It wasn’t. I couldn’t wait for this to be over.

It reaffirmed my decision that this was my last full marathon. It was with overwhelming relief that I saw the FargoDome coming up. There was a short run through the parking lot, down the ramp into the dome and the finish line.

Marathon Finish Time – 5:29:27 (personal worst).

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I got my medals (these things are huge and beautiful), water, and finishers photos. Post race food was pretty basic (pizza, banana, chocolate milk). I used the free access to shower facilities at the stadium (free for all runners…thank you Fargo Marathon for this perk!) and headed out.

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Post race, there was a pub crawl in downtown Fargo. No purchase was needed….just get a passport, go to every bar, get it stamped, and get a bonus medal (just like the finishers medal, but a bottle opener). As expected, nobody seemed to know anything about this. The event guide listed a website for details but the website didn’t exist. I went downtown, found a participating bar, talked to the bartender and figured it out. I had to walk around downtown for about an hour (after running a marathon), but I wasn’t going to leave any bling behind! Once finished, I started to head back home.

Overall, Fargo is a mixed bag. The things they focus on (nice route, amazing medals, race entertainment, indoor staging area), they had surpassed expectations. But, they kept overlooking basic things that any event should be doing. Lack of signage and not giving volunteers some basic information about the race and packet pick up led to a lot of needless pre-race stress. Their ability to reply to e-mails or FB questions was inconsistent (over half went unanswered). The course support and post race food was barely average. With these multiple gaffs, I would have to rank Fargo as delivering an average to slightly below average running experience, with the caveat that there are some exceptional features for an event of this size.

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