Minnesota - A Marathon in Every State
Updated: Sep 22
I never gave Minnesota much thought as a state to make a priority for in marathon running...
...until I had a conversation with a prominent marathon runner from the Lansing area. This individual was the husband of the Williamston Cross Country Middle School head coach. I was their assistant coach at the time, so our paths crossed at the Bath Invitational as we’re both cheering on the Hornets. He was a man who was experienced in marathon running, at a time when I was still very new to the weird and addictive hobby. His wife told me countless stories about his races and experiences over the years, so he was a man I quickly trusted to give great advice for a race that was either a fast course, or one with an unforgettable experience.
Upon asking him for his recommendation for marathons, he said Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota without hesitation. His elevator-pitch selling points on the race is that it happens in June, but Duluth is right on Lake Superior, so the lake effects keep the temperature moderate, and that it was a flat and fast course. Both bullet points were enough to pique my interest toward the city of Duluth, which until that point was unfamiliar to me (other than the hilarious Duluth Trading Company commercials I would see on TV). His energy was infectious for how much this race meant to him, and quickly sold me on venturing out to Minnesota to soak in the city.
I was relatively new to Dart Container at the time when I decided to make Minnesota my next state to conquer for my marathons back in 2017, so it was my first official vacation with the company. Dart employees are eligible to start using vacation time from June to June of the following year, so it didn’t take me long to throw my name in the calendar for Thursday, June 15 through Monday, June 19. Once my co-worker’s wrapped their heads around my weird goal of wanting to run a marathon in all 50 states, I told my supervisor about how Duluth will be my next stop. Her eyes immediately lit up at the mention of Duluth, and how much she loved that city. It took me by surprise, as I assumed everyone just viewed it as the headquarters of Duluth Trading Company. Immediately she started mentioning Split Rock Lighthouse, Grandma’s Saloon and just the fact that this quaint little port-town has an atmosphere all its own. Needless to say I was counting down the days until my departure on June 15th.
The night of Wednesday, June 14th remains a night burned into my memory. As Joel and I were frantically packing our bags for the upcoming road trip, as we always do last minute, we’re caught off guard by a firetruck driving down our road after midnight. Keep in mind that Joel and I live on a dead end dirt road, so the fact that we saw anyone driving up our road at that hour of the night other than a fellow neighbor was bizarre. The firetruck stopped across the street to the home of a retired firefighter. Trying to remain optimistic, Joel and I assumed our neighbor was out catching up with old co-workers and for whatever reason they were driving one of their trucks around that night. When multiple men jumped out of the truck in their fireman suits and started hustling toward the house, our optimism quickly faded.
Joel and I were naturally curious as to what was going on at their house, as were other neighbors who found the firetruck driving down the quiet dirt road late at night as an odd occurrence. Soon after the arrival of the firetruck, several police cars arrived on the scene. We were all doing our best to both keep our distance and to be respectful, but also offer assistance in any way if needed. Endless possibilities were running through our heads as to what could have happened in that house to prompt the phone call to the police and fire department. The police were not at liberty to disclose anything, which only made our minds race faster for what kind of situation they were dealing with. Packing and preparing for our road trip seemed to be the last thing on my mind in those moments.
After what feels like an eternity, I received a phone call from a fellow neighbor from down the road who was also trying to make sense of the situation. That retired firefighter, a father of two, took his own life four days before Father’s Day.
I was in complete shock when I heard the news, as I just saw him a few days prior, and would speak to him on occasion about running and the different trips I would do. Joel even planned to ask him to grab our mail for us while we were on the road. I decided to channel that shock and grief into my running and the things we would talk about, and planned to make Grandma’s Marathon dedicated to his legacy and honor, and anyone out there who may be silently dealing with depression.
With the grieving family across the street fresh in our minds, Joel and I loaded our bags in our parent’s vehicle after a few hours of sleep to start our trek to Minnesota. As any of our road trips go, we couldn’t just simply drive to our destination without venturing off the path a little. This pit stop came in the form of Frank’s Diner – a quirky breakfast joint located in the quaint town of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The food is hearty, the space is tight and the attitude soars through the roof. It checks off the main criteria we look for in a local eatery, and commands our attention whenever we’re driving within the vicinity of the quaint Wisconsin town. It commands enough of our attention in this venture to take us nearly two hours off I-90 just to experience it for the fourth time. The stop was well worth it, as it always is. Getting our fix of garbage plates before finishing the remaining seven hours of the drive to Duluth.
We had other pit stops along the way, like in Sarona, Wisconsin at the Getaway Bar N Grill. We stumbled upon their soft opening, and had a decent selection of food served by some very personable owners. It was there that I discovered that Spotted Cow by New Glarus Brewing is a solid Wisconsin beer, and hits the spot after a full day of being cooped up in a 2007 Buick Lucerne.
The following day, we found our way into the Duluth Grill for our lunch plans. At this time I wasn’t fully vegetarian yet, and I was a sucker for fish tacos whenever a menu offered it. To date, they were the second best fish tacos I have ever had, with Red Iguana out of Salt Like City, Utah holding down the number one spot. However, the food and the experience was still outstanding enough to purchase a baseball tee and coffee mug as a keepsake before heading out.
Our next destination was Grandma’s Saloon – an eatery that’s credited for being the only local business willing to sponsor the marathon during its first year in 1977, according to a post by Lake Superior Magazine. Because of the sponsorship from the restaurant, the marathon adapted the name. Despite changes in the level of sponsorship with surrounding restaurants, the name has remained the same 43 years later. What began as a $600 sponsor to a 150 participant race in 1977 swelled into drawing 18,000 participants from all over the world to participate in the events held during the weekend of Grandma’s Marathon. Clearly the visionaries who organized the race captured something special in the 26.2 mile trek from Two Harbors to Duluth.
On the morning of race day on Saturday, June 17, it didn’t take me long to experience just how special this race was. The route from Two Harbors to Duluth is a point-to-point course set along scenic Highway 61 overlooking the massive and beautiful Lake Superior along the north shore. With an elevation change of no more than 124 feet along the 26.2 mile trek, according to FindMyMarathon, that trusted friend knew what he was talking about when he said the course was flat. While adrenaline and pre-race jitters typically cause my pace to be faster than normal out of the gate, this race was no exception. However, that fast pace didn’t disappear after a few miles. The flat course, energetic crowd, beautiful scenery and moderate temperature for a June morning propelled me to average under 6 minute miles for the first ten miles of the race. It was at that point I realized my finishing time was either going to be a massive PR, or an utter train wreck once my mind caught up to my body. Either way, I was having the time of my life.
Feelings of nostalgia would wash over me as a clearing would open up to a gorgeous view of Lake Superior. Being a native to the Midwest, images of forests and water just make me feel at home, and remind me of simpler times spent up north with family friends relaxing on the water. The cottages and summer homes around the halfway point reminded me of times I would spend up north with family friends near Crystal Lake as a kid. My pace at this point was still on track for a PR, so needless to say I was feeling good.
All good things must come to an end though, right? I’m 22 miles into the race and holding strong, until I get to the infamous Lemon Drop Hill. The hill is roughly 1,700 feet in length, and rises about 60 feet. Looking at the numbers, it doesn’t sound like that dreadful of a hill. However, when you’re 22 miles deep into a race, any anthill can feel like a mountain. The sheer length of the hill brought my out-of-this-world average mile pace back crashing down to planet Earth. With four miles to go, my pace was slowing down hard.
As I kept trudging along and finally crossed the bridge in Duluth near Grandma’s Saloon, I knew the finish was in sight. It wasn’t pretty compared to how the race started, but I still crossed the finish line in 2:46:47, which averages out to 6:22 mile pace. Having ran 15 marathons to date, Grandma’s Marathon still remains my fastest race. All in all, I had a lot to be proud of for my fifth overall marathon in my fourth state.
The stories that follow after a marathon can sometimes be just as interesting as the stories leading up to them, and this race was no exception. With my legs being barely able to function, I grudgingly climbed the stairs at Grandma’s Saloon for a cold beer, rather than doing the logical thing by receiving a complimentary massage.
Even the simple tasks like showering is a painful and dreadful task. However, once I accomplished that, my family and I loaded in the elevator (because I was completely over stairs at this point) and got talking with a fellow participant of Grandma’s Marathon who happened to be staying at our hotel. After sparking up a conversation about where we planned on eating, we did what any hospitable Midwestern family would do to a complete stranger, and invited him to join us for dinner. To this date we’re still Facebook friends and talk occasionally about marathon plans, as we both want to eventually run a marathon in all 50 states. This individual just happens to be a few states ahead of me on his journey.
It’s funny to think how this massive string of events all started with a simple conversation with an experienced marathon runner at a middle school cross country meet. Grandma’s Marathon was everything that I could have hoped it would be and more, displaying a unique history and legacy that the quaint port-town of Duluth has to offer. The entire experience taught me to take the time to talk to people about your goals and ambitions, because you never know who else shares that same vision, and has wise words to offer. It also goes to show that any community has a unique history and story behind it that’s worth exploring if you take the time to do so.