The Most Beautiful Race

Resting post race.

In the days leading up to this year’s Twin Cities Marathon, I chewed my finger nails down to nubs, twisted my stomach up in knots, and grew progressively more and more nervous about the upcoming race. By Saturday, I was already preemptively depressed about how poorly I would run the next day. I reminded myself never to sign up for another marathon ever, ever, never again.

Given my state of mind, one might have assumed it was my first marathon, not my eighth, but a string of bad-luck over the past five years really knocked down my self-confidence. The gods of running have sent a plague of heat waves, chest colds, and injuries upon me, ruining one race after another.

Then, race day morning, the sunrise spread pink and beautiful through a tangle of construction towers at the future Vikings Stadium. The air was crisp, the bells of the Basilica were ringing, the crowds were cheering, and the runners were running, and running, and running.

They call it the “Most Beautiful Urban Marathon” in the United States. From downtown Minneapolis to the Capitol in St. Paul, the course visits all of the best parts of the cities – the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Creek, the West and East River Roads along the Mississippi River Gorge, and the mansions along Summit Ave. That the Grand Rounds Scenic byway exists today is a testament to urban planning that happened in the late 1800’s when city leaders envisioned a park system that would reconnect residents with nature. In 1911, a channel was built to connect Lake of the Isles with Lake Calhoun and folks in Minneapolis celebrated the creation of the Minneapolis Park System. During the next five years, a canoe craze swept the city and people flocked to Harriet and Calhoun to paddle and lounge.

As is the case with many urban water bodies, the Chain of Lakes gradually worsened over time as sediment and phosphorus poured into the lakes from streets in surrounding neighborhoods and commercial areas. Unlike in many other places, however, area residents and local units of government eventually worked together to accomplish one of the largest urban lake restoration projects in the United States. Starting in 1990, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, the Minneapolis Parks Board, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and local community groups began installing clean water projects above Cedar Lake and down through the rest of the chain. They constructed sedimentation basins, wet detention ponds, and artificial wetlands to keep sediment and nutrients out of the lakes, restored shoreline areas to control erosion, improved street-sweeping practices around the lakes, and initiated a major education and awareness effort to convince local homeowners to reduce their use of fertilizers and pesticides. Today, all of the lakes have improved dramatically. Calhoun and Harriet receive “A” grades from the Metropolitan Council and only Lake of the Isles is still considered impaired for having too much phosphorus. Meanwhile, restoration and improvement efforts continue downstream along Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River as well.

It was somewhere around Mile 19 of the Twin Cities Marathon, crossing over the Franklin Ave. bridge from Minneapolis into St. Paul, that I started to believe this race might be different. Though my legs were starting to ache, the air was still cool, the leaves on the trees still green and gold, and I was still able to enjoy the beauty of the Mississippi River Gorge down below. Two miles later, when we finally turned away from the river and headed towards the Capitol, the crowds surged, the bands played, my legs burned, and still I ran on. Five miles later, one last crest of a hill and then the gold dome of the State Capitol building appeared, gleaming in the sun. Now, the bells of the Cathedral were ringing and I felt like singing because the end was in sight and I was finally, finally after so many tries, ending the race before the four-hour mark.

It was a beautiful day to run the most beautiful urban marathon in the USA.