Grandma’s Marathon tests strength, endurance, spirit

by Justin Ware

It’s 7 a.m. Saturday and 9,100 runners are preparing for the 25th anniversary of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth.

The night before, runners, along with their families and friends, consumed 300 kegs of Miller Lite, 7,000 pounds of spaghetti and 215 gallons of ice cream.

The next morning, approximately 14,500 runners participated in the three races that make up the annual event: the Garry Bjorkland half marathon, the William A. Irvin 5K and the 26.2-mile Grandma’s Marathon.

Two hours, 14 minutes and 25 seconds after the marathon began at 7:30 a.m., Kenyan runner Benjamin Matolo was the first to cross the finish line.

Matolo was disappointed with his finish as it was nearly five minutes off the record mark of 2:09:36 set by Dick Beardsley in 1981.

Matolo had hoped to set the record and win the prize of a new vehicle the Marathon offered as incentive to break Beardsley’s 20-year-old mark.

Beardsley, winner of the marathon in 1981 and 1982 and the current record holder for best men’s time, participated in this year’s marathon and placed 89th among all male runners.

Beardsley believes this will be his last run at Grandma’s.

The 45-year-old’s time of two hours, 55 minutes and 39 seconds Saturday is even more remarkable considering the runner has overcome numerous surgeries and a crushing addiction to painkillers to run in a race he once dominated.

Lyubov Denisova of Moscow was the first woman to cross the finish line, with a time of two hours, 35 minutes and 13 seconds.

Grandma’s is one of the largest multi-race events in the nation. The marathon itself is the 11th largest in the United States. Among other races of similar magnitude, Grandma’s is the only event not held in a large metropolitan area.

Two Harbors, a small North Shore town of just over 3,600 inhabitants, is the starting point for the marathon.

Grandma’s Marathon was created in 1977 by local runners and had 150 participants its first year. Since then, the marathon has seen tremendous growth and generates $7.5 million for the Duluth-Superior harbor area every year.

Around 7 on a sun-drenched morning, more than 9,100 runners finish their last minute stretching routines and begin to line up for the grueling 26 miles that lie ahead.

The atmosphere is not intense preparation, as one might guess, but more of a celebratory nature.

Loudspeakers blast everything from the Macarena to Smashmouth as friends and family send encouraging words and well-wishes to their runners.

Jey Carlson, a former University graduate student, prepared to run his third marathon Saturday.

Carlson’s first marathon was the Twin Cities Marathon, which he finished in just over four hours. He hoped to finish closer to three hours in Duluth this year.

Carlson’s inspiration for running: “the crowd, the people, the families of runners.”

Steve Perunovich, Chris Hagen and John Hagen have joined the marathon scene and share Carlson’s sense of a running community.

The three men have run marathons together for nearly a decade. Each time the men run, they designate a theme and dress themselves accordingly.

Since 1992, they’ve run wearing togas, Chip’n’Dale costumes and Elvis outfits.

This year the men took note of the unusually high presence of “army worms” – a type of caterpillar that created a slippery surface when runners trampled them.

But what could be a problem for most runners was inspiration for Perunovich and the Hagens.

The runners dressed in camouflaged shorts and bandanas and went shirtless with “one hundred percent worm stomper” written on their backs and chests.

Running is more than just an extension of Halloween for the three men.

The young men’s busy lives leave little time for reunions. For them, running is “a chance to get together,” said Perunovich.


Justin Ware welcomes comments at [email protected]