Ten years ago I ran my first marathon (Chicago, 2006). When I finished, I told a friend that I couldn’t wait to run another one. She suggested Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. Unfortunately, the 2007 race was on a day that I already had other plans. Over the next ten years, at least a dozen other friends told me that Grandma’s a must-run. Each June, I see hundreds of pictures and comments on social media that talk about what a great race it is. I’ve always wanted to run Grandma’s, but I’ve always seemed to have something else going on during race weekend that prevented me from signing up.
So I’ve literally been looking forward to running Grandma’s Marathon for a decade. This year, the stars finally aligned and I had an open calendar on race weekend. So after waiting all these years, did Grandma’s live up to my expectations? Absolutely.
Grandma’s is the only marathon I’ve ever run where a single course combines all of the elements that make different types of marathons great.
- If you like scenic races in a peaceful, natural setting, you’re in luck. The first 18 miles of the course go through the North Woods. You’ll hear birds and other nature sounds. You’ll see tree lined roads, wildlife and great views of Lake Superior. It’s almost like a paved trail run.
- If you like big city races with tons of cheering spectators, you’re also in luck. The last 8 miles of the course go through Downtown Duluth and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. Duluth isn’t as big as Chicago or New York, but Grandma’s is a huge event in the area and the crowd support during this part of the course is amazing.
- You’re also in luck if you like quirky races with local spectators who do unique things to encourage the runners. A few examples:
- The course is point to point. You park at the finish line and take a train to the start line. Grandma’s is the only marathon in the world that transports runners to the start line by train.
- At mile 9 two guys were sitting on a porch playing a modified version of When You’re Smiling, the World Smiles With You on a guitar (instead of smiling, it was When You’re Running…) on a guitar.
- At mile 20, a guy had set up a bacon stand in front of his house.
- At mile 21, college kids hung out in front of their frat houses to cheer for the runners. Guys offered beer while girls asked male runners to show their boobs.
There are a ton of spectators at the finish line. After the race, there’s a big post race party near the lake with food, beer, music and all kinds of other fun stuff. The Grandma’s finisher’s medals are awesome. They were extra special this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the race, but the ones I’ve seen from previous years were pretty sweet too.
I absolutely loved this course. In fact, it was one of the best full marathon courses I’ve ever run. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to cross a finish line in my life.
I never ran a race that was black flagged before. When I ran the Buffalo Marathon a few weeks ago, the temperature got up to 96 but the alert level only went to red. At Grandma’s, the heat index was over 100. I watched the weather alert flags on the course change from green to yellow to red to black as the race progressed (black meaning extreme danger). I’m not sure if race officials pulled some runners off the course or if they all went to the medical tents to voluntarily drop out, but more than 2000 people didn’t finish.
This is not normal for Duluth. The average highs in Northern Minnesota during June are in the 60’s or low 70’s. Some areas are so cool that there can still be snow on the ground. I talked to a local runner who said that the reason so many people were struggling was because race day was the first time all year that temperatures had gotten over 65. People who trained in the area weren’t acclimated to the heat. To make things worse, I checked the weather forecast before I left for Duluth. Race day was supposed to be overcast with a high of 72. Instead, it was sunny, hot and humid. There was no way to prepare for it.
At some points along the course, a cool breeze blew off of Lake Superior and made the air feel more comfortable. Also, since Downtown Duluth is right next to the lake, the temperature from mile 23 to the end was almost 10 degrees lower than at mile 15. Still though, I found myself run-walking the last third of the course wondering why every full marathon I’ve done over the few years has turned into a death march through excruciating unseasonable heat during the second half.
Enough about the heat though. It was unfortunate that it happened and I feel bad for anyone who didn’t get to finish the race after training so hard for it. Honestly though, there was nothing the race organizers could have done to handle it any better than they did. There are so many good things about this race and I don’t want anyone reading this review to decide to not sign up for it because of an anomaly.
I have a few tips for anyone planning on running Grandma’s in the future though:
- Grandma’s also has a half marathon. The half is so popular that runners have to register via a lottery system. The marathon is first come, first served but it still sells out pretty quickly. So don’t wait too long to register.
- If you want a Guaranteed Entry, you can sign up for the Great Grandma’s challenge. This consists of running a 5K on Friday evening and then either the marathon or half marathon on Saturday morning. This option is only open to 500 people though.
- Book your hotel EARLY. As in the second you get done registering for the race. I’m not kidding about this. I registered in October but waited until December to book my hotel room. Even though it was still 6 months before the race, all of the hotels in downtown Duluth and Superior, WI (the next town over) were full. I ended up staying almost 40 miles away.
- Duluth has a small airport but it’s hard to find flights to it. If you’re planning on flying, your best bet might be to fly into Minneapolis and drive from there. It’s about 2 hours by car.
- Expect the expo to be crowded. This is probably the only negative thing I have to say about race weekend. (I’m not counting the heat as a negative because it’s outside of the race organizers’ control). When I went to pick up my race number, the expo, crowds were so thick that I could barely walk down the aisles. I didn’t bother to stop and check out any of the exhibitor booths because the lines were too long. I don’t know if a bigger venue is needed or if a simple layout change in the existing venue would work but this definitely needs to be adjusted.
- Get up early on race morning. With the course being point-to-point, you have to park at the finish and get a ride to the start line either on the train (marathon runners) or a shuttle bus (half marathon runners and marathon runners who miss the train). The parking lots fill up fast and the lines for the train and buses get long. You’ll want to arrive early to avoid standing around waiting to board.
- If you’re running the marathon for the first time, take the train to the start line. Marathon runners can also take one of the shuttle buses, and the buses actually get to the start line faster than the trains. But you can take a bus anytime. Hanging out on a train full of runners during a nice scenic ride through the North Woods is a unique experience. The only drawback to the train is that since the buses arrive first, the lines for the port-a-potties at the start will be long when you get there. But whatever. It’s still worth it.
- At some point during race weekend, stop by Grandma’s Saloon & Grill. They were the original race sponsors (which is how the race got its name) and have an excellent food and beer menu.
Overall, despite the heat, this was still one of my favorite Marathons. At some point, I’ll probably go back and run it again. In the meantime, I’ll be recommending it to my friends who are looking for a June race. Grandma’s definitely lived up to the hype. Now that I’ve done it, I understand why runners speak so highly of it.