It’s almost that time of year again: Grandma’s Marathon weekend. Known as one of Duluth’s unofficial holidays, the race is a huge part of the fabric of our community and has been since its inception in 1977.
Unsurprisingly, it takes many, many people to put on a great marathon. This includes staff and interns, volunteers, Board members, sponsors, and runners alike. And we certainly can’t forget to mention the support of our community’s fine residents and business owners, who provide such great hospitality for our guests.
Recently, Destination Duluth visited with some of the people who make the event happen: Zach Schneider, Marketing and PR Director, Grandma’s Marathon; Tom DeSutter, race volunteer; and runner, Tony Loyd.
Each eagerly provided their unique perspective on what makes Grandma’s Marathon so great. They also explain why the marathon’s tagline – “a world-class event with small-town charm” – is so fitting.
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. There is also a staff of 11 full-time employees, plus interns and seasonal staff.
“The North Shore Striders was the name of the group who started the first race,” Schneider explained. “The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon was added in 1991, and the William A. Irvin 5k was added in 1994. And today, Grandma’s Restaurants are still a major sponsor.”
This year’s “Grandma’s Weekend” will be June 15-17th, 2023. The weekend kicks off with the Essentia Health Fitness Expo, held Thursday, June 15th – Friday, June 16th at the DECC. Here, 100+ vendors will be on-hand, displaying race-related gear.
Guest speakers and authors will also take part, including Duluth native – and Olympic athlete – Kara Goucher, along with another runner, and the author of “Running While Black,” Alison Mariella Desir.
Friday’s festivities will include the annual Michelina’s All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Dinner; a tradition for 47 years. Saturday will bring the children’s whippersnapper events. And the entire weekend will feature plenty of live music and other entertainment.
Grandma’s Marathon leadership are incredibly pleased with this year’s numbers. “For 2023, we have more than 20,000 runners registered,” Schneider said. “And we sold out back in March, which was one of our earliest sellouts.”
Schneider provided plenty of other interesting race statistics, too:
- Grandma’s Marathon is the 12th largest marathon in the United States
- In 2023, just over 9,000 people will run the full marathon
- In 2023, 9,400 people will run the ½ marathon
- In 2023, 2,700 people will run the 5k
- An estimated 45,000-50,000 people are expected to travel to Duluth in 2023 for Grandma’s weekend
- Race leadership expects an economic impact of roughly $21M
- All 50 states will be represented with runners
- Runners are expected from 68 countries, including Mexico, Ethiopia, Canada and Kenya
- A whopping 3,500-4,000 volunteers are needed for the race. Volunteers handle everything from water station stops, questions about the event, finish line logistics, the spaghetti dinner, and much more.
- The top men’s and women’s finishers will earn a prize of $10,000
- The top men’s and women’s wheelchair finishers will earn a prize of $3,000
- The top men’s and women’s half marathon winners will earn a prize of $3,000
- Other prizes, such as time incentives and winners of the non-binary category, will also be awarded.
Schneider also added that this year’s marathon should be extra-exciting, due to the large demographic of elite runners. “It’s an Olympic trials year, so we expect a really strong field of runners,” he noted.
Duluth provides the perfect backdrop for a June marathon. “There are so many things that make Grandma’s in Duluth so special,” Schneider said. “Duluth offers a unique combination of elements that add up to make it the 12th largest race in the U.S.
“We have lots of natural beauty, including the race route along Lake Superior, and the fact that you’re basically running in the northern Minnesota wilderness for the first 20 miles. Then, the runners see people for the last six miles, when they really need a boost.
“The people here also make it great,” he added. “Our city has always opened its arms to be welcoming to runners. The event is well-organized, and runners feel like they’re wanted and appreciated. We have such wonderful hotels and restaurants, too. The entire community feels it when its Grandma’s weekend.
“And, when it comes to weather,” he added, “The temps are typically in the low-to-mid 50s, rising to maybe the 60s with the wind off the Lake, which pushes the runners.
“Grandma’s has really become an unofficial holiday here in Duluth. What happens here during Grandma’s weekend isn’t common; we should be proud of it.”
Tom DeSutter has been volunteering for Grandma’s Marathon for over 20 years. This year, he will serve as co-volunteer coordinator for the Marathon information booths.
“We operate two information booths, one on Thursday evening and two on Friday of Grandma's weekend,” he explained. “I share the coordinator responsibilities with an old friend and workmate, Joan Andrews.
“Together, we recruit, train and schedule approximately 30 information booth volunteers annually. We are the 'go-to' people for all concerns during race weekend. Fortunately for us, come race day, our work is complete and we get to enjoy the spectator activities.”
DeSutter shared some positive remarks about what makes Grandma’s so special. “The entire atmosphere surrounding race weekend makes it a ‘festival of running’ in my mind,’ he noted.
“Since both the half and full marathon are point-to-point races, it requires extra coordination. (Start line bussing, gear bag management, and a myriad of other concerns). But, all the work pays big dividends for the runners, as Grandma's truly is a unique and fun event.
“The residents of Duluth really do embrace the marathon year after year,” DeSutter added. “It is certainly an inconvenience for some (people who live on the course in particular), but they still travel up and down the course and experience the enthusiasm for the runners.
“Musical groups providing live music, along with a cast of characters providing all kinds of entertainment suggest that the residents of Duluth are ‘all in’ when Grandma's weekend arrives every June!”
A Runner's Perspective
Runner Tony Loyd is scheduled to participate in his 4th Grandma’s Marathon this year. Loyd is originally from Arkansas, but currently lives in Little Canada, Minnesota.
Loyd shared his thoughts about the race. “You know how they say Grandma's is a world-class event with small-town charm? It is absolutely true! Grandma's punches above its weight class. And they do so with a tiny staff. The few staff members wear a lot of hats. And the volunteers fill in the gap. How they pull this off year after year, well, it's a miracle.
“I would stack Grandma’s Marathon against marathons in major cities around the world: Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, Tokyo, and Duluth – which one of these is not like the other? And yet, Grandma’s is a world-class marathon.
“It's amazing how Grandma's enjoys the support of cities, villages, and counties,” he added. “I talk to a lot of race directors. They tell me that it's getting tougher to put on races. They don't always get the kind of cooperation they need. Grandma's Marathon enjoys deep community support. It takes a village, and all the villages from Two Harbors to Duluth show up. I've never been anywhere where the entire town shuts down and comes out to support a running event. Grandma's is special.
Loyd also shared how Grandma's Marathon has all the components of what he calls a “perfect marathon,” including:
- Flat and fast, but with a few rolling hills to let you recruit different muscles
- A beautiful, scenic course
- World-class elite runners
- Plenty of citizen runners
- Great crowd support
- Friendly volunteers
- Medical volunteers
- Press corps
For Schneider and his small but mighty crew, hosting Grandma’s is a highly rewarding endeavor. The marathon is a premiere event that the entire region should be proud of.
“I don’t think big things should be reserved for big places,” he said. “It’s incredible to see what can happen when people work toward this combined good. Grandma’s is proof of what can happen when the community comes together.”
For more information, please visit grandmasmarathon.com.