Grandma’s Marathon: Architect of Our Fitness Culture


Every year on a special weekend in June, a distinctive magic falls over Duluth that can only mean one thing: it’s time for Grandma’s Marathon! The culmination of months and months of work - arduous training for the athletes, and meticulous planning by staff and volunteers - all comes down to this.

As the final pieces of Grandma’s Marathon fall into place, we can’t help but reflect on how this race, which started with just a tiny group of local runners, has put Duluth on the map as an international athletic destination. It has also helped prime the pump for further accolades, including a “Fittest City” ranking from Fitbit!

A Little History

Grandma’s Marathon began in 1977 when a group of local runners planned a scenic road race from Two Harbors to Duluth. There were only 150 participants that year, but organizers knew they were on to something special.

The race got its name from the Duluth-based group of Grandma’s Restaurants, the first major Marathon sponsor. Grandma’s Marathon is now a self-governed nonprofit organization with a 17-member board of directors.

A Global Draw

Runners from all over the world now travel to Duluth to participate in Marathon festivities. In 2017, 40 countries and all 50 states were represented.

The Grandma’s “family” has grown over the years, and now includes three races: The full Marathon, the Garry Bjorklund ½ Marathon, and the William A. Irvin 5k. Grandma’s weekend draws more than 18,000 participants for this three-race trifecta each June. Runners and residents alike also enjoy the pre- and post-race festivities, including the spaghetti dinner and the Big Top Tents, featuring live music and plenty of ice-cold beer.

Grandma’s Impact on Duluth

Whether examining the impact on our economy or the growth of Duluth’s reputation for fitness, Grandma’s Marathon has contributed so much. Executive Director - Grandma’s Marathon, Shane Bauer, shares,

“Grandma’s Marathon highlights the best of what this community has to offer. It has so much to do with the people. We hear all the time that runners hold our event in such high regard because of how the community shows up to support it, unlike anywhere else they run. You always hear about the economic impact, the scenery, the party, and all that good stuff, but I especially enjoy hearing all the positive feedback about our volunteers and this community.”

Running Stores

Duluth features several shops selling shoes and other merchandise catering specifically to runners: Austin-Jarrow, Duluth Running Company, and Tortoise & Hare Footwear.  Duluth Running Company and Tortoise & Hare also offer training groups and yoga for runners. The popularity of Grandma’s Marathon has played a large part in creating the demand for these types of businesses.   

Duluth as a Fitness Destination

In 2016, Duluth earned top honors as the “Fittest City" in the country by the makers of Fitbit. Data including daily steps, active minutes, resting heart rate and sleep duration were compiled from more than 10 million users of their Fitbit trackers.

We’re sure our local Marathoners played a large part in boosting our stats!

Hometown Pride

Grandma’s Marathon is a huge draw to Duluth for visitors, and a source of hometown pride for residents. If you’ve never heard the scream of spectators as the runners make their way down London Road, or seen the elation on the athletes’ faces as they cross the finish line, you’re in for a treat. 

“To see Duluth among the list of our country’s biggest and greatest marathons really elevates this region in more ways than we can measure,” Bauer says. “I love the pride this community has in the event, and I know it’ll never get old to come over that hill to the home of Grandma’s Marathon.”

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