Race Report: 2011 Grandma’s Marathon (Part 1: The Course)

I have a lot to say about Grandma’s Marathon, so this is broken into two parts. In part 1 I cover my perception of the course, expo, and other elements that shouldn’t change much from year to year. In part 2 I describe my performance in the marathon.

As a native Minnesotan I’ve taken some pride in the fact that my state is home to two of biggest and best marathons in the United States – the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon (8197 finishers in 2010) and Grandma’s Marathon (5611 finishers in 2010). Clearly these numbers aren’t anywhere close to the experience of running Chicago or New York, but when you consider the size of Minnesota, and especially the size of Duluth, it’s pretty remarkable. What’s more remarkable is that this was the 35th running of Grandma’s Marathon. Going in I figured it was a safe bet that they had running this event down to a science, for the most part they do.

First stop after a drive up I-35 plagued with road construction was the expo. I have to be honest, I didn’t expect much from the expo, but was very surprised. The first thing that hit me, the ENORMOUS cavern used for the pasta dinner. Walking past this hit the actual expo which was phenomenal for the size race. Lots of local events and stores along with a smattering of national events too. If you forgot anything for the marathon you could certainly get it there at pretty reasonable prices. Although, as seems to be the norm, the deals for the women seemed to be much better than the deals for men. Picking up marathon swag bag was breeze too. No complaints about the expo at all.

Transportation to the starting line and back from the finish line was provided by Grandma’s Marathon. Starting line transportation is a necessity as the race starts in the parking lot of the Ford dealer outside of Two Harbors. For most people running the full marathon transportation was provided from their hotels by city buses. I was dreading this at first, I had flashbacks to slow-moving buses in the dark on the way to Big Sur and I also often get nauseated on city buses. Surprisingly, cruising down a straight road at 55 miles per hour with no stops makes a city bus pretty nice transportation. However, starting in 2009 they added a unique form of transportation. About 650 runners each year can take the train from the DECC to the stating line. The train is slower than buses, but it’s got some ambiance to it that a city bus just doesn’t. Sadly, taking the train requires you to arrive at the DECC really early. There was a bus stop at my hotel, so I just took that. This allowed me to see that by the time the train arrived most buses had already arrived. The prime locations to wait were occupied and the bathroom lines were quite long. For those who weren’t staying in downtown Duluth the marathon also provided transportation back after completion — it’s one of those really nice things that they didn’t have to do but certainly reflected the whole Minnesota Nice of Duluth.

The actual course is pretty straightforward. For the most part it is a jaunt down Old Highway 61 from Two Harbors, MN to Duluth, MN, ending at the original namesake sponsor, Grandma’s Restaurant. Over the course of the 26.2 miles the course loses about 130 feet. There are a few hills, enough to keep it interesting, but none are really substantial. Lemon Drop Hill, around mile 22 inside the city limits of Duluth is probably the biggest challenge, but it’s pretty short and comparable to going over the Queensboro bridge in NYC, the Birmingham Bridge in Pittsburgh, or some of the smaller hills at the end of Big Sur.

Grandma's Marathon Course Map and Elevation

Aside from a small U-turn at the end Grandma's Marathon is a straight point-to-point course

After about 18 miles of scenic running down old Highway 61 the course finally enters Duluth, first in a pleasant residential area. This was a great spot to run because of all of the families and drunk UMD students cheering the runners on and offering beer (if it had been mile 25 I would have taken some). While it wasn’t Manhattan or Park Slope in terms of fan density, it was certainly a huge motivating factor. The locals really do seem to love the event. After about three miles in residential neighborhoods you hit Lemon Drop Hill which takes you into downtown Duluth. Some of the bars had really great cheering sections set up — although whatever bar had the fenced off area serving booze needs to use some cattle prods to liven up those fans.

Downtown Duluth was interesting to run through. Good support throughout the run, but the brick roads and the condition of some of the bricks made things a little difficult. When wet the bricks can be a little slippery and man of the bricks had broken corners which required you watch where your feet fell. At mile 25 the race hangs a left, goes over I-35 and heads toward the DECC and the finish line.

The last mile was the absolute worst part of the race. Not so much because it was the last mile, more because it follows a curvy road around Canal Park. If you don’t know where the race ends you think that it’s going to end at the next curve at least four or five times. You really have no idea. After what seems like a 3 mile run for the last mile the race finishes with excellent support and thousands of fans right by Grandma’s Restaurant in Canal Park. It’s great to know that even though Grandma’s isn’t the primary sponsor of the race anymore, they still get the name and the race still ends there — a wonderful touch of history and respect for a great marathon.

This isn’t to say that everything was awesome about the weekend. Duluth has a population of about 86,000 people. With 6400 people running the marathon and 6000 people running the half marathon, this was a strained city. Putting things in another perspective, if we kept the ratio of runners to citizens constant then the New York Road Runners would need to handle 640,000 people in the New York City Marathon. Even New York would have problems with traffic and hotel rooms if that many people were in a single event. Indeed, it seems as though every hotel within 20-30 miles of Duluth was booked full well in advance. Most hotels were charging the rack rate and required a 2-3 night stay, making this a very expensive marathon. The savvy pros realize you can get a room a UMD or UW Superior for significantly cheaper. Something to consider for next time.

There were two other downsides surrounding logistics. The first was restrooms during the course. Although there were plenty of portapotties at the start during the race there were very few. Every couple of miles we stumbled upon a pair of portapotties — often with a very long line. Most men took advantage of the wooded course and left the portapotties for the ladies in the race. Adding even an additional portapotty at each cluster could REALLY help out. The other issue was at the end of the race, getting checked bags was a bit of an ordeal, and being as it was very cold during the race, this forced runners to backtrack to get food after waiting in line to get their sweats back. Not a huge problem, but given the 48°F high on race day, this was really cold.

Is there a chance I’ll do Grandma’s again? Absolutely. It’s a great race with wonderful scenery that is masterfully run with great fans and great support. Except this time I’ll make sure to book my room and transportation early.

Keep running.

1 Response to “Race Report: 2011 Grandma’s Marathon (Part 1: The Course)”

  1. June 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    I’m running Grandma’s as my first marathon in 9 days! I ran the half last year, and the 5k the year before that, but as a fellow minnesotan (and I lived in duluth last year) this post makes me so proud!

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Marathon Times

2011 NYC Marathon3:57:45
2011 Hartford Marathon3:58:17
2011 Chicago Marathon4:20:16
2011 Grandma's Marathon4:07:43
2010 Big Sur International Marathon4:22:49
2009 NYC Marathon4:37:05
2009 Twin Cities Marathon4:43:28
2009 Pittsburgh Marathon4:14:38
2008 Erie Marathon5:11:40

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