Mitch went to Grandma’s

Lovely Scenery at Grandma’s – photo credit –

Mitchell Kosny

I think Grandma’s Marathon should be (with apologies to Bob Dylan) renamed “Highway 61 Re-visited”.

It’s actually not a new race, and I was surprised by how many people had heard about it. But familiarity with the name is pretty much where it stopped. Grandma’s Marathon began almost forty years ago in 1977 when a small group of 150 local runners thought it would be a good idea to have a road race from Two Harbors to Duluth, Minnesota. The marathon took its name and initial sponsorship from the Duluth-based group of Grandma’s Restaurants. It’s now a full weekend, and over 18,000 runners descend on the Duluth area to run the Marathon, Half-Marathon, and 5K. The Marathon is a point-to-point course run along the north shore of Lake Superior on Old Highway 61 starting just outside Two Harbors, Minnesota and finishing in Duluth’s Canal Park.

With over 6,000 runners in the Marathon, it’s now one of the top ten races most frequently used to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

That’s part of the reason I ended up there on June 20. It was a ‘back-up’ Boston qualifying race. My plan was that if things didn’t go well in the Ottawa Marathon (and…it turns out they didn’t as I came up about two minutes short of a BQ), I would have Grandma’s as an option. I also have family and a cottage on the shores of Lake Superior just outside Thunder Bay which gave me a great excuse for a pre and post-race visit.

Duluth is a bit out of the way, and it’s not the easiest place to get to if you’re just going for the race. I flew to Thunder Bay…spent a day or so at the cottage, and then we drove to Duluth on June 19. It’s about a three-hour, very pleasant and scenic trip along the Lake.

Big races in smaller cities mean planning way ahead: this was no exception. Even though I had made my decision to run six months earlier, every hotel in the entire area was full. We ended up staying about thirty minutes south of Duluth at a Hotel/Casino Resort…and…as I witnessed from the exodus in the lobby area on race day, so did a lot of other runners.

We got a wake-up call for 4:45am, and here’s where Grandma’s starts to shine. The organization of everything was fantastic. There were buses at over twenty different stops where you could be transported directly to the start in Two Harbors…about forty-five minutes away. We showed up at a roadside gas/restaurant stop…all the buses were there…we left on time…and it was seamless. Way to go Race Committee!

That is one drawback with point-to-point races: you’ve got to drive to the starting point, and run back to home!

Not a lot of chatter in the bus at 5:45am. Even less chatter when the rain started.

The Starting Line is on Old Highway 61 with no cover or shelter. By the time we left the bus…it was sprinkling and there was that judgment call: do I wear my rain gear…how about the garbage bag…or…do I take a chance. You never win no matter what you do! With twenty minutes to go, it was raining…and as the horn sounded to “move ’em out”…it was pouring buckets. Garbage bags ahoy!

Lots of runners…running down two lanes of black top along the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world. It was good. The road was straight…a few undulating hills…but that’s about it. What was amazing was that, in the rain, clusters of people were standing alongside Old Highway 61 cheering us on. It made a huge difference.

I think I kept my garbage bag on for 30K or so and it finally let up.

Almost all of the race is a highway run. It’s mostly flat with one hill (Lemon Drop Hill) near the end which isn’t bad, but the killer is that you have a long straight stretch before it, and you can see it coming at you for a long way…and it just keeps sittin’ there waiting for you…and you’re starting to flag just about then. I don’t think we actually got into Duluth until the 37K mark (and, of course…everything is in miles so…at least it gave me something to do as I constantly kept converting miles to kilometers), but then it was a run right down the main street and through a ‘harbourfront-type’ of area to the Finish Line where, unbelievably, it wasn’t raining any more. At that point, it didn’t really matter: I wasn’t the only person shaking at the end!

Great finishing area…tons of people…jumbo-screens…food…refreshment tents…you name it. I can imagine how nice it would have been to hang around on a nice day. Good on ya’ again, Organizing Committee.

We didn’t stay around too long. All I wanted to do was get warm so we walked to the car and turned the heater on ‘hi’…and started our drive home to Thunder Bay.

I really liked it! Everyone to his/her own, but I’d rather run in cold and rain (well…maybe not the rain…) than hot and humid conditions so, from my perspective, temperature was just perfect.

Funny things do happen. I got my rain jacket lifted at the airport in Thunder Bay (my favourite rain jacket…) and I decided to get another one at the Expo…just pure dumb luck that I found one that fit…and that I decided I might need it! There’s more: my carefully pre-mixed concoction of gels and water?? I forgot them in the hotel room so I ran with no gels and only stopped for water and Powerade along the way.

So…pouring rain…no gels…new jacket…new course…all recipes for disaster, right? Well, I did get a PB, finished 14th, and qualified comfortably for my first Boston Marathon next April. Go figure, eh? I guess good things do happen…out on Highway 61.