“Grandma’s Marathon” Northern Wilds, Jun/Jul 2009.

I’ll round the corner by the middle school and face a mile of straight road. At the far end, I’ll see it sitting there, mocking me: Lemon Drop Hill. At 22 miles into Grandma’s Marathon, this mild incline looks like Everest. I like that hill, though, and this summer will be my seventh time up.

I’m a rookie considering it’s the 33rd edition of this Northland tradition. In 1977, Scott Keenan, who’s still the Executive Director today, cobbled together a budget of $649 with some sponsorship from a new restaurant in Canal Park called Grandma’s Saloon. One hundred and fifty people ran from Two Harbors to Duluth that first time. Last year, 6,876 runners finished the trek, making it the thirteenth largest marathon in the United States. Not bad since Duluth-Superior is the 149th largest metropolitan area in the country.

Runners couldn’t use their iPods during Grandma’s in 2007 and 2008. In December of 2008, USA Track and Field changed their policy to allow the use of headphones during races that they sanction. So, if you’re a racer who absolutely must motivate yourself with Metallica, you’re in luck this summer. However, the race staff encourages runners to participate without them to enhance the overall race experience. I agree. With headphones, I would miss the encouragement of all the awesome spectators. Or the whistle of the train that races you back to town. Or the exclamations of your fellow runners as they see the Aerial Lift Bridge for the first time on the course. I’ll take those sounds over Barry Manilow any day.

This year, when you think “Duluth” and “marathon”, Kara Goucher comes to mind. Kara grew up in Duluth and stormed onto the world stage by coming in third in the New York Marathon last fall, running the fastest marathon debut ever by an American woman. In her second marathon, she very nearly won the 2009 edition of the Boston Marathon after dominating the race for the last five miles. Kara Goucher is coached by Alberto Salazar who narrowly beat Dick Beardsley in the famous 1982 “Duel in the Sun” at the Boston Marathon. Dick Beardsley still holds the course record for Grandma’s Marathon, set in 1981. With all of her Duluth connections, I asked Bob Gustafson, Public Relations Director, if Kara Goucher had any plans to run Grandma’s Marathon. He said, “Kara has an invitation from our organization to compete in any of our events which might fit into her racing schedule. We are confident at some point in her running career Kara will run Grandma’s and we will be excited when that day occurs.”

In the meantime, the citizens of Duluth will have to settle for watching me struggle up Lemon Drop Hill with a smile on my face. Am I a masochist? No. I’m smiling because that’s where I’ll find my wife and two kids. They’ll give me a hug, some Lifesavers candy, and motivation to go four more miles to the finish for the lucky seventh time. For all the festivities before and after the biggest race in the Northern Wilds, check out grandmasmarathon.com.

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About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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