Hyperbole is pretty much de regueur when it comes to advertising road races. “PR course,” “best post-race party,” “bands every mile” are just a few of the claims you’ll see bandied about on entry forms and websites for events of nearly every distance and size.
But the folks in the Twin Cities who put on their eponymous marathon every October aren’t exaggerating when they call their race “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America®.” Heck, they’ve even trademarked the phrase, and why shouldn’t they? If it were ever contested in court, any other city 26-miler that tried to mount a challenge would be bounced out in a heartbeat.
When city marathons first started becoming the rage back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, in the wake of the success of New York City and Chicago in this country and London and Berlin overseas, there was an inside joke among those of us covering the sport that an urban marathon course had to include at least one stretch of industrial ugliness or housing malaise, just to ensure that the participants really knew they were in a city. But somehow, over a course that meanders from the start near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis to the finish near the state capitol in St. Paul, the TCM organizers have managed to route runners over 26.2 miles of the most scenic roads found within the limits of any city in this country.
Of course, they might have a bit of an unfair advantage in achieving this. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, four major ones, plus the mighty Mississippi, are salient features of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and throughout the year, even on the coldest days, are as populated with runners as New York’s Central Park reservoir or Boston’s Charles River footpaths.
But then, Minnesotans have always been known as avid outdoorsmen, braving frostbite in the winter and mosquitoes the size of small sparrows in the summer to hunt, fish, skate, ski, and of course, run. It’s both telling and perhaps ironic that a city that depends on a network of pedestrian skybridges to connect its downtown buildings in order to stave off pedestrian hypothermia would also beat the Big Apple by several years in instituting a bike share program, to the point that it’s hard to walk more than a few blocks in MSP without coming across a rack full of the lime green clunkers, or encounter groups of Rent-A-Bikers out for a cruise along the river or lakes.
This zeal for fresh-air exercise has propelled Twin Cities in Motion, organizers of the marathon, to incredible growth over the past decade, growing from a one-trick pony to an organization that produces races through all but the coldest months of the year. If it’s not quite as prolific as New York Road Runners and its near-weekly schedule of events, TCiM is the northern Midwest equivalent, with an added dose of “Minnesota Nice” thrown in to each race.
Still, the marathon is the crown jewel, even with races over 5 and 10K and 10 miles, the last often drawing national championship caliber fields, competing for attention that weekend. And while it doesn’t draw fields as large or fast as New York, Chicago or Boston, for a relatively small marathon, to quote Daniel Webster, “yet there are those who love it.”
No doubt the preternaturally pleasant race workers and volunteers are part of the reason, but the primary attraction must lie with the course. It’s by no means a pancake-flat PR producer, with rolling hills of various lengths and gradients sprinkled through the opening 10 miles and the most challenging one placed precisely at 21 miles, the marathoner’s point of doubt where the spirit becomes unwilling as the body grows weak. But then, how else should one expect to get to the final miles on the somewhat ominously named Summit Avenue, one of the most beautiful boulevards one can run down to the finish, especially during years when Mother Nature has cooperated fully and the Midwest autumn foliage is at its peak. That sight, and the sound of spectators who line this final straightaway for four miles, carry you along until the dome of the Cathedral of St. Paul comes into view, divine information that your Twin Cities trek is nearing its conclusion.
When you cross the finish, in sight of the capitol, your main focus will be not on the seat of government but on a seat for your weary bones and muscles. And while you may sit and curse your own pacing errors, the weather, the pasta you ate last night, it’s unlikely you’ll come away with anything less than 100 percent amazing memories of the course, and a burning desire to come back and run it again.