Each June in Duluth, Minn., there is a shift from the college-town atmosphere that is present during nine months out of the year to the tourist town it becomes during the summer. One single event brings near pandemonium to the streets of Duluth each summer, and that is Grandma's Marathon.
An event coming into its 34 year, Grandma's Marathon represents a "World Class Event with Small Town Charm." For the last three decades, Grandma's Marathon has been one of the largest events held within the city of Duluth, offering much more than just a 26.2-mile marathon course.
Grandma's Marathon is held during the third week of June each summer, turning the Canal Park area of Duluth into the largest party the city sees all year. Grandma's Marathon alone attracts 9,500 runners of all different abilities, and they generally fill about 120 "Elite" slots, in which elite runners are required to submit previous race statistics to be qualified.
The course for the marathon starts in Two Harbors, Minn., and travels the Scenic Route 61 along Lake Superior to the finish line in Canal Park, near the famous Aerial Lift Bridge. Thousands of fans and spectators line the course to provide encouragement during the race each year. "Grandma's Marathon is more than a 26.2-mile race. It's a celebration of running, live entertainment, fabulous food and activities for the whole family," said Dick Beardsley, the current course record holder.
The marathon committee also schedules and holds the very popular Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon, the William A. Irvin 5K race, the Fitger's 5K race, and the Park Point 5-miler. All these events help support the main marathon, and add to the full weekend of festivities that take place.
Gary Bjorklund, a Duluth native and 1976 Olympian, was a major part of expanding long distance running in Minnesota. Bjorklund was the 1977 and 1980 champion of Grandma's Marathon, and in 1991 the marathon committee added a half marathon to celebrate his dedication to running and the event.
Since 1991, the Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon has become one of the most popular marathons of its kind in the United States, mainly because of its appeal as half the distance and run on the same course as the full Grandma's Marathon.
Because of its popularity, the marathon committee has been forced to limit the field to 4,500 runners, all of which are selected from a random lottery some six months before race day.
The Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon starts halfway up the marathon course to Two Harbors, and finishes at the same line in Canal Park, where all sponsored pre- and post-race activities take place.
One man who works behind the scenes each year is Bob Gustafson, the public relations director for Grandma's Marathon. Gustafson has the daunting task each year of garnering sponsor support, sending out press releases and race information to the media, as well as creating a buzz within town for the race. He also helps create the "Weekend Race Results" booklet after the race is over, to highlight all the runners and their times, as well as hundreds of photos from the weekend.
"In my position, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some of the most passionate people you will ever meet," Gustafson said. "Our runners, sponsors and volunteers all dedicate so much to help make Grandma's Marathon the first-class event in has been for nearly 35 years."
When it comes to race weekend, Gustafson said the experience that can be summed up in just a short phrase, but holds so much weight.
"Marathon weekend is the most exciting time of the year," Gustafson said. "It's the time when a year's worth of work is showcased in a single, spectacular weekend. The efforts of many people are put into motion and it is so rewarding to see it all come together. Besides being Duluth's largest event, Grandma's Marathon weekend is also one of the largest running festivals of its kind in the country. Whether you are here as a runner or not, it is a truly a weekend not to miss."
In light of Grandma's Marathon weekend, another type of marathon has been started in Duluth. That race is known as the North Shore Inline Marathon.
The North Shore Inline Marathon boasted 4,000 inline racers this past year, and it continues to grow in popularity each year. This marathon and committee is in no way affiliated with the Grandma's Marathon, but the inline race follows roughly the same route as Grandma's; starting in Two Harbors and following Route 61 down into Duluth. The only change is that once the skaters hit London Road, they break off into the "tunnels" to get to Canal Park instead of continuing on London Road like Grandma's Marathon does.
This race is held in mid-September, so it adds to the excitement that Duluth has to offer each year. Whether running or rollerblading suits you best, Duluth offers two action-packed weekends that will be sure to keep you coming back year after year.