The open aisle seat on the yellow school bus was one of the few remaining. I slid into it and quickly nodded to my college-aged seat mate as I plopped my bag of runner’s gear between my feet. He too was on his way this morning to run the 37th Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. His dress was odd for the 22nd day of June. His thin frame was covered in heavy sweat pants and a thick hoody. His attire matched mine and most of the other fat-free occupants on the bus.
The temperature on this morning was hovering just under 50 degrees with a tuba-deep fog hampering our view of the Lake Superior shore. A northeast breeze at 12 mph made us glad this 26.2 mile point-to-point course was north to south. The dark swollen clouds looked ready to burst at the slightest provocation. It was not a good day for tourist. It was an excellent day for a marathon.
My seat mate was a student at Minnesota Duluth and had not been back to town since school let out a month ago. “Almost nothing’s changed,” he smirked as he pressed his nose against the bus window. “It’s gotten greener but the weather was just like this in May – except there was more snow then.”
Attempting to describe with words the unique weather we encountered in Duluth during our three-day stay would take a far more accomplished wordsmith than I. We left Kansas City Thursday morning as the weekend heat was building. We watched my son run in Des Moines at the USATF Junior Nationals that same afternoon as the sweltering sun took its toll on the field of 19 runners in his 3,000 steeplechase race. (Shannon finished ninth – just two seconds from claiming an All-American spot in the top six.)The high in Minneapolis when we arrived that night topped 90. None of this weather was overly remarkable considering it was late June. A day later all that changed.
We parked our car in downtown Duluth Friday afternoon to walk toward the DECC Arena to the packet pick-up building. We could see our breath as we quickly donned sweatshirts and jackets grabbed from our bags in the trunk. The fog that hung over downtown obscured the view of anything taller than a couple of stories. It was like we had stepped into Rogers and Hammerstein’s fabled hamlet of Brigadoon.
“Summer doesn’t start here in Duluth until August,” my bus seat mate explained. “And then it’s gone.”
We had not wanted to believe our good fortune as we obsessively checked the Weather Channel app on my iPhone as we drove north from Minneapolis. Could it really be 52 degrees in Duluth when it’s 90 just two hours away? This had to be wrong, right? It was. It was 48 in Duluth.
I made the trip to Duluth with five other Kansas City runners. We are all a part of a group of aging local runners who have been meeting to run Blue River Road in South Kansas City every Sunday morning – some for three decades or more. The numbers in this group swell and shrink depending on the time of year but the core people are there almost every Sunday unless they are off somewhere racing. I joined up with this band of running brothers in November of 2011.
Ken Beach is the mayor, godfather and historian when it comes to this Blue River Road running contingent. Ken ran in high school at Raytown High and has been one of the dominant age-group runners in Kansas City for much of the past 20 years. He is now 60. This would be his 63rd marathon. Ken was running sub-three hour marathons into his 50s but since he’s turned 60 he has been chasing a sub 3:30. The flat, fast Grandma’s course would be his shot at that barrier.
Ken’s former Raytown High classmate, Dan Hall, has been running Blue River with Ken since the early 80s. Dan has come agonizingly close over the years to qualifying for the Boston Marathon but had always fallen short. We all saw this race as his chance. He would need a 3:55 since turning 60 last month.
Yael Abouhalkah, the Kansas City Star op-ed columnist, is also a member of the BRR team. Yael qualified for Boston in his first marathon a couple of years ago and then had the misfortune of running (more like surviving) Boston in 2012 when the temps were in the 90s. The Boston bombings did for Yael what they did for a lot of runners – made him adamant that he would run Boston again in 2014. He needed to run under 3:40 at Grandma’s to BQ in time to register for Boston in 2014.
Two of our younger BRR group, Peter Clune and Chris Oldham, flew to Minneapolis and drove over to Duluth Friday to meet up with us at the DECC Arena. Peter and Chris are Rockhurst High grads in their early 40s. They are about 20 years younger than us four older BRR chaps on this Duluth tour and they add some needed impulsiveness to our party. The two stopped at an Indian Casino on their drive over from Minneapolis and each of them won $300 at the blackjack table. Those funds became mutual petty cash for our weekend.
Peter ran Boston for the first time last April and just like Yael or anyone who has run Boston – he desperately wants to return in 2014 to show the bombers they can’t crush what drives the Boston Marathon. He qualified in 2013 by the narrowest of margins. He needed to run 3:15 and he ran EXACTLY 3:15 at Orlando’s Disney marathon in 2011. But you have to qualify anew for Boston each year. Peter needed at least a 3:15 in Duluth.
Chris Oldham is new to running, new to the marathon and new to the BRR gang. At 40, he is late to getting bit by the running bug but he shows promise. He started training with us on Sundays on BRR last winter. He had run one marathon at around four hours and had planned a trip to France to run the Paris Marathon in early April. Chris stumbled around Paris and posted an ugly 4:24. The BRR club has not let him forget this. We immediately dubbed him “Paris.” Paris would need to run a whole lot better than 4:24 at Grandma’s if he wanted to shed his nickname.
Yael and I shared a dorm room at Minnesota Duluth while Peter, Paris, Dan and Ken were staying at a resort up near the start in Two Harbors, MN.
Grandma’s Marathon is Duluth’s Super Bowl every June. It is also an excellent example of the American supply and demand – especially when it comes to hotel rooms. Downtown hotels in Duluth demand $300 to $400 A NIGHT during marathon week – with a two night minimum. Even the cheap hotels like the Comfort Inn or Best Western are getting close to $300/night with a two night mini. Welcome to Duluth…suckers!
Our dorm at UMD was $95/night with a two-night minimum. This was college living in its basic sense. Our room was industrial clean, with a vinyl floor and painted cinder-block walls. We each had a freshly-sheeted single bed and a small desk. We would share a communal bathroom with seven other dorm rooms on the fifth floor.
We were ecstatic that our dorm room was only a few steps from our shared bathroom. Our giddiness quickly faded though once it was lights out. UMD built this dorm to last. They built the doors on the rooms and especially the bathroom to last through the next ice age. The bathroom door was big, heavy and ridiculously LOUD. And there were two of them. One that opened to a vestibule and one that opened to the common bathroom.
Swoosh – BANG! Swoosh – BANG! Every time one of our floor mates needed to go to the bathroom, use a sink, take a shower – we were reminded of what a cherry bomb sounded like; Swoosh – BANG! Swoosh – BANG! And then again when the bathroom goer exited; Swoosh – BANG! Swoosh – BANG!
This went on from 9:00 PM until I gave up and headed to the showers myself at 4:00 AM. No one sleeps great the night before a marathon as it is – nerves, anxiety, anticipation, excitement – all work to keep you awake and rob you of much-needed rest. But these bathroom doors and the doors to the dorm rooms banged a symphony all night that left Yael and I staggering to the bus line that would drive us north to the start.
As we disembarked the buses in Two Harbors, we were again taken by the cool weather and northeast breezes that would help push us south the next 26 miles.
Minnesota native Dick Beardsley set the Grandma’s course record 32 years ago with a blazing 2:09. No one has come close to that mark since. We attended his seminar the day before where he stated the conditions were perfect for his record to finally fall. “We heard one of the Africans say it’s going to fall,” said Beardsley. “There is talk it might go as low as 2:03!”
Grandma’s is a fast course but it is not overtly flat. Chicago is a flat course with a 200-meter bump at mile 26. Grandma’s is slightly rolling with some very gradual up hills and down hills. But there is absolutely nothing to fear when it comes to the course. It deserves its top-ten ranking as one of the fastest marathons in the country.
Deena Kastor, the last American female to score an Olympic medal in the marathon (bronze medal at Athens in 2004 and the U.S. record holder in the marathon with a 2:19:36), also spoke at Friday’s marathon symposium. “The 50-degree temperatures and the high humidity are excellent conditions for running a fast time tomorrow,” she told the assembled Grandma’s entrants. Frank Shorter calls these conditions, “no-excuses weather.”
The race starts just a mile south of the touristy but pretty downtown of Two Harbors. A large Ford dealership sits up on the hill to the right. A railroad track runs adjacent to old Highway 61 on the left. Some of the runners opt to take the train to the start rather than the cavalcade of buses. It is not the most scenic part of the course. The 7,000 or so marathoners kill time before the start by standing in the long porta-potty lines or trying to stay warm huddled between new Fords or on the muddy grass hill.
Duluth is home to 86,000 extremely hearty folks. Two Harbors – where Grandma’s starts – houses just under 4,000 – and I think they are counting some of the moose in that number. A loud train whistle sends the runners off as we head south to one of the more non-ceremonial starts I have ever experienced for a road race.
I was about a hundred yards are so behind the start line but I had no idea the race was on when the mass of runners began jogging ahead of me. I had just taken a photo of the runners behind me and sent it out in a tweet when we started moving. I quickly tucked my iPhone back into my zippered back pocket and joined the dance.
There were no crowds to cheer us off. Just rows and rows of unsold F-150 trucks and that bleating train whistle. Into the foggy morning mist we trudged.