Grandma's Marathon is it worth the Trip?
Grandma’s marathon is a big race in a small town. 9,500 people registered for the marathon and about the same for the half marathon (which sells out fast). If you haven’t heard of it, you may want to add it to your bucket list.
When is it? Late spring
On a Saturday in early June – So the weather could be a perfect cold and misty, a hypothermic cold and raining, or an exhausting hot and humid.
Where is it? Duluth!
It’s in Duluth, Minnesota. Where is that? It turns out Duluth is on the shore of Lake Superior about a two and a half hour drive from Minneapolis. Minneapolis is a major airport, so if you live too far away to drive, there are lots of flight options. From Minneapolis airport, you can take a shuttle bus or rent a car to get to Duluth. If you stay in recommended race accommodations with shuttles, you can manage in Duluth without a car. The biggest advantage to renting a car is the ability to stop at Tobies. Tobies is a bakery in Hinckley (about half way between Duluth and Minneapolis.) Tobies is known for it’s cinnamon rolls and pies. home made donuts, baked breads, rolls, cookies, and more! After all one of the perks of running a marathon, you probably aren’t counting calories, so this is a great place to load up on indulgences.
One of the first things you will see in the distance when you arrive in Duluth is the lift bridge. The lift bridge is a remarkable feat of engineering. Duluth is a shipping port and you get some big ships. Instead of the typical draw bridge, they have a lift bridge that literally lifts the entire span of the bridge to make room for ships coming into port. This is the same bridge you’ve seen on Grandma’s marathon website, race medals, and race gear. You have arrived at your race destination! You will learn to love and hate this bridge. It’s a great landmark for the finish line, in fact it’s such a great landmark you can see if miles and miles and miles away. It taunts you on the race course looming in the distance.
Where to stay? Reliving your college years in a dorm perhaps?
Like all big races, there are recommended race hotels. If you want to stay at a hotel that is close to the finish, you want to stay in Canal Park. Any hotel in the Canal Park area is close to the lift bridge, the finish and race expo. The race expo is in the DECC (Duluth Entertainment and Convention Centre). Canal park also has bars and restaurants so you don’t have to go far to find food. Like all big races, hotels will book fast and expect hotels to jack up their rates on race weekend, so you will pay for the convenience. There is no point in trying to get a hotel near the start line. There is no parking at the start, and there is no drop off at the start. Everyone must go to the start using shuttle services (more on that later).
Grandma’s offers an interesting alternative to expensive hotel rooms. You can book a room at the college dorm! There are two bedroom apartments with their own kitchenette, and the standard small dorm rooms with two single beds. We stayed at the University of Minnesota Duluth residences. We were slow making our reservation so we weren’t able to book one of the two bedroom residence rooms with its own kitchen. Instead we got the more traditional university dorm room with two beds, two desks, and a dresser. Bathroms and showers down the hall. There is no air conditioning, but you can open the windows to cool down if needed. It was hot the weekend we were there (more on that later) but I was still able to get a good night sleep. I never had to wait for a shower, and there were a few great advantages to staying at the dorm. The price was reasonable ($100 USD a night), you could get a shuttle bus to and from the expo area (which was also near a number of restaurants), there is also a shuttle directly from the dorms to the race start.
The nicest surprise was the hospitality suite! There was a big room with race course maps, postcards, brochures, and more important bagels, fruit, water, soda, even junk food. I particularly liked the drawings on the tables by some local kids welcoming the runners! We could have completely skipped our grocery store run for pre-race food! The smaller dorm rooms are a little small (though bigger than some of the hotel rooms I have spent $300+ a night during Boston marathon weekend). A couple can stay in one comfortably, but if you are bunking with a friend, you are definitely going to be stepping over each others smelly sneakers. There are also a number of lounge areas where you can hang out if you want a little more space to hang with fellow runners. In theory no alcohol is allowed in the common areas. We found the lounges a great place to chill and watch Spirit of the Marathon to get psyched for race day.
The race expo – free chocolate milk, I’ll take that thank you!
We drove down to the DECC in Canal Park where they host the race expo. We got there early so no problem parking. The parking lots were getting pretty full by lunchtime, so if you are going later you may want to take the shuttle instead. The first thing you see in the expo hall is the setup for the spaghetti lunch & dinner. What a great setup! You can have your pasta dinner anytime during the day. So if you prefer to carbo load at lunch instead of supper, or you want a 3 PM dinner you can just wander in with your ticket, and tuck in! This also makes it easier to dine with a large group, so great for running groups travelling together to the race.
I did find it odd that you have to walk through the entire race expo to get to bib pick up. This made the narrow pathways through the race expo a little crowded. But once we fought our way to race packet pick up they were quick and efficient. Men’s kit pick up and women’s kit pick up are split up. If you happen to register for the 5km & half marathon challenge, look for the challenge kit pick up separate from the 5 km and half marathon pick up desks.
The race expo itself, was decent. If you forgot nipple guards, gels, or body glide, you can pick up what you need. If you want free samples (chocolate milk, Old Dutch cheese curds, hot sauce, granola) you will find those too. The usual “I run for wine” or “In my dreams I run like a Kenyan” shirts, stickers, and glasses. There is an impressive selection of official race gear as well, and not as expensive as I expected. There are Grandmas marathon sweatshirts, hoodies, pint glasses, magnets, pins, stickers, posters, jackets, hats, etc… I picked up a magnet, a 26.2 laptop sticker, a 0.0 laptop sticker for my husband the spectator, and a hat. My race partner picked up a nice hoodie with the course map emblazoned on the sleeve.
Mandatory photo ops – where is Dick Beardsley?
Make sure you take your picture at the car with the name of every single runner (marathon on one side, half marathon on the other) printed on the side.
When we were walking the last mile of the course, we found the 26 mile marker on the road, which made for a great shot since the finish line wasn’t set up yet when we walked by.
There will be runners speaking at the race expo. *The* runner to meet at Grandma’s marathon in particular is Dick Beardsley. Beardsley is known for his 1982 Duel in the Sun battle at Boston against Salazar. Beardsley was born just up the road from Duluth in Minneapolis, his course record 2:09:37 at Grandma’s stood for 33 years! This is his race! He is a fantastic ambassador for the sport and if you do get to meet him, he will always find time to chat. This means the line up moves slowly, but when you do finally meet him you will be glad you made the effort. He is usually one of the speakers, but listen carefully to announcements at the race expo. We managed to catch up with Beardsley at a booth in the expo, but because the announcements were hard to hear, and the booth stop wasn’t posted anywhere, there were very few runners waiting to meet him, chatting with him was a treat!
All runners need to pose at the lift bridge either before or after the race!
The start area – great shuttles, no shade
There is no parking at the start, and there is no drop-off at the start. All runners and spectators must use shuttles! Sounds scary, but the fact is the shuttles are very organized. So just look up the shuttle schedule, head down at the appointed time and hop on your bus. It won’t be long until you see a statue of Paul Bunyan watching over the start.
One of the really cool options is a train to the start! We were very tempted to take the train. You have bathrooms on the train, you can stay on the train a little longer if it’s raining to stay dry. But the train only holds 1000 people and it only leaves once, so we were concerned we might not get a seat. We also read that one year the train arrived a little late to the start making it a rush for runners to drop off their gear at the bag check and get to the start. So we chose to play it safe and use the shuttle buses instead, which worked perfectly. We hopped on the first shuttle and had lots of time to settle in at the start. I have never seen so many port-a-potties with so few runners. This must be what it is like for runners in Wave 1 at Boston.
The start area filled up quickly and it wasn’t long until you had the usualy port-a-potty lines. For the record the train arrived in plenty of time for the runners on the train to disembark, drop off gear and get to the start this year.
They had lots of water available in the start area as well, but there really wasn’t any shelter or shade so pack appropriately! We had a sunny day so we didn’t need our garage bags to stay dry, but they were handy to sit on the grass still wet from dew. In 2015 they got hit with a downpour and there were a lot of wet runners (one hid in a port-a-potty to stay dry and was very unpopular when he was discovered).
The start – Where is my pacer?
We made our last port-a-potty run and headed to gear check and the start. The gear check is a clever set up, self service. A bunch of labeled bins on wheels. Just toss your bag into one of the bins labelled with your range of bib numbers. We screwed up and waited too long to drop off our bags. By the time I reached it, there was only one bin left labeled for my bib number range and it was already overflowing! I jammed my bag in as best as I could, and it was waiting for me at the finish line. My bad for waiting too long to drop off my bag. Waiting too long also makes getting to gear check a challenge since it is in the start chute, so lesson learned don’t wait until the last minute.
They don’t have corrals which is a shame given the size of the race, but they do post signs suggesting where to line up for different finish times and most runners were respectful of those signs. I walked up to the 3:45 and looked around for my pace bunny. The Cliff Bar pace team was at Grandma’s and I had seen the pace bunnies arrive, including my 3;45 bunny but there was no sign of the pacer. Then I realized almost ALL the pacers were standing much closer to the start, somewhere around the 3:15 mark perhaps? I though perhaps they would move back down the corral to where we were gathered, but they didn’t. I had to fight my way up through the crowd to my 4:15 bunny. I was lucky, I was close enough to see the pacers. Runners at the 4:00 and 4:15 mark never realized their pacers were so far ahead. This is my only real complaint about Grandma’s marathon weekend. They organization really was fantastic, but that was a terrible place to put the pacers and it caused a lot of frustration and bunching near the start. I don’t know if that decision was made by the Cliff Bar pace team or by the race organizers, but I will certainly share that feedback in the race survey. We even chatted to the pacers at the expo and they never mentioned they were going to meet runners there. So if you plan to follow a pacer, ask where they will be at the start!
The course – Not as flat as it looks
Don’t let the course map fool you, this race isn’t flat! It’s not hilly, but it’s not flat. It’s a continuous set of light rolling hills. It’s quite a good course to try and PB, because the rolling hills are probably easier on your legs overall. The only *big* hill is lemon drop hill, at mile 22, which is not as tough as most of the *big* hills I have encountered at other races. The course basically follows the road along the lake into town. It’s a shame that the trees block the view of the lake most of the course, but on the other hand those same trees provided much needed shade on my race day. Views of the lake are a mixed blessing, because as gorgeous as they are, they also tease you, it isn’t long before you can see the lift bridge in the distance even though you still have a solid two hours of running to get there!
I loved the mile markers, great big yellow balloons floating in the air for the marathon, blue balloons for the half marathon. Since all water stations are at mile markers this also made it easy to see the water stations well in advance so you could take your gels just before a water stop.
The nastiest part of the course is actually the last mile and a half. I am so glad my training partner and I walked this the day before race day. The last mile is one of those twisting turning finishes, where you turn a corner and think hey I can see the finish and then you turn away from the finish to add a few hundred more meters. If you aren’t expecting it, you might kick a little early and regret it. After a race with almost no sharp turns along a sweeping highway for 25 miles, suddenly making 90 degree turns left and right and being sent through parking lots is a strange way to finish, but it’s the last mile, you are almost done, you’ll get through it and the last .2 miles is straight to the finish through throngs to help you forget your pain!
The water stops – All other races can learn from Grandmas!
I LOVED the water stops at Grandmas. They did a fantastic job! I was a little surprised the first water stop wasn’t until 3 miles out, after that they had stops every 2 miles. When you reach mile 19 you have a water stop every mile.
Here’s what I thought they did better than any other race I have run. Every water stop was on both sides of the road. They had lots of volunteers. Every water stop followed the same pattern: Water, Powerade, ice, sponge, water. Even when I was still running (it was hot for my race day so by mile 13 I was walking water stops) I was able to get everything I needed without really slowing down. Having ice and sponges at every stop was particularly important on our race day. The original forecast had called for a warm day, but it turned into a really hot day and the fact they had ice and sponges at every water stop probably kept a lot of us out of the med tent! There were a couple of Cliff Gel stops on the way as well, but I carry my own gels so I don’t remember exactly where they were. There were also two stops with orange slices and strawberries. A huge kudos to the race organizers for having such great water stations along the way.
If you needed it, there were several aid stations en route as well, I saw more than one runner pop over to get some vaseline or help mid-race.
The spectators – What a finish!
If you have family and friends cheering you on, ask at the race expo about the spectator train. This was so cool! They have a train at the start line which spectators can ride back to the start! It will stop along the way so they can cheer the runners along the course! Such a cool concept!
The crowds will vary depending on the weather. If it’s pouring rain, don’t expect many crowds for the first 18 miles. Pockets of spectators will appear to cheer you on but mostly it’s just you and the other runners. I ran on a gorgeous sunny day (i.e. hot!) which was not great for my time, but resulted in a great turnout for spectators! There were certainly stretches where we just had the occasionaly family at the end of their driveway clapping as we went by, but there were other spots seemingly in the middle of nowhere with big crowds making lots of noise cheering us through.
It’s the last 6 miles that really rocks! Personally that’s where I need it most! Once you get into Duluth you will find more and more crowds cheering you on, once you hit the cobblestone streets it gets even louder. My best pace in the last 10 miles was on the cobblestones as the cheering carried me through. Of course I had no qualms about using electrical tape to write my name on my shirt so people could cheer me by name. Even when I am tired, or walking, I still enjoy hearing that cry of ‘you can do it Susan’ or ‘Go Susan’ . They don’t put the names on your bibs, so if you need that extra oomph, find a way to help the crowd cheer you on(though electrical tape it appears can cause chafing according to my male running partner who had to remove his name from the front of his shirt at mile 24 and paid the price for all that cheering in the shower post-race)
It’s all about the t-shirt! and medal right? I happened to run this race on the 40th anniversary, so I got a great jacket, and the medal is some serious hardware! I am not sure the airline would allow it as carry on! There were also official Grandma’s marathon race socks in my race kit. One of the things I like about this race is you don’t get your t-shirt until you cross the finish line. They don’t give you a race shirt, they give you a finishers shirt. Since I am one of those superstitious runners who refuses to wear my race shirt until after the race anyway, this worked out great for me! However the one drawback is that they do sometimes run out of sizes by the time later finishers cross the line. In particular ladies XS seems to be a popular size. So if you see a shirt you really like in the race expo, splurge.
The finish area
You have crossed the finish line, you can barely walk, you’ve got your medal, your shirt, and your thermal blanket, and most important your drink ticket (don’t lose that, and if you are one of those rare runners who like me doesn’t drink beer you can get a soda instead). You can pick up your bag from gear check (volunteers will read your bib number and go off to find it for you, so you don’t have to think). There are bagels, chocolate milk, water, potato chips (hooray for salt!), and all the usual goodies in the finish area. If you are waiting for someone else to finish, it is possible to leave the secure area and come back to meet them in the finish area as long as you still have your bib.
One great aspect of the finish area is the change tents. That’s right, you don’t need to try and change your shorts inside the port-a-potty. They have men’s and women’s change tents in the finish area. So go ahead and pack your gear bag with a complete change of clothes!
There is a beer tent with a band (tip: the line for drinks is shorter inside the tent than outside) and when you have recovered enough to need real food you can stumble around Canal Park until you find a restaurant with available seating. We only had to walk about 3-4 blocks to find a restaurant which could seat us immediately. After a late lunch we hobbled back to the DECC and found the shuttle bus which took us back to the dorms for a nap and a shower (in that order!) We came back to Canal park for supper to eat at Grandma’s restaurant and to take a picture by the lift bridge, a fitting ending for Grandma’s marathon.
To sum up! Because that was a long race report
Grandma’s is an extremely well organized race, a nice course, and nice atmosphere. If the weather co-operates you could definitely PR on this course, in fact it’s one of the top ten races for Boston qualifying times. Getting there was a little more expensive for me because I had to fly in, but the meals, souvenirs, and accommodations were cheaper than other big races I have done, so it worked out. It has the feel of a big marathon but it’s held in a small town which makes for a really nice atmosphere. Register early and book your accommodations early. Grandma’s is waiting for you!