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Retired Grandma's Marathon director Keenan tending gardens, not the race

Retired Grandma's Marathon race director Scott Keenan is experiencing the buildup to race day from afar for the first time. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

If ever there was a year for Scott Keenan’s gardens to sparkle, this was it — or so he thought.

Keenan has long had a knack for gardening. He just never had the time, not in the spring while overseeing one of the largest and most well-

respected races in the country. That all changed upon his retirement as executive director of Grandma’s Marathon last summer. Suddenly, free time abounded, and the sprawling gardens at Keenan’s Lakeside home were expected to be the beneficiaries.

That hasn’t been the case.

“I wish it was, but it’s not because of all the crappy rain that we’ve been getting,” Keenan said Tuesday from his back porch.

He was wearing a Grandma’s Marathon T-shirt and ballcap, and his most pressing concern was an inability to mow his lawn entirely — the lower half was too soggy.

What a difference a year makes.

Keenan, 60, is experiencing the buildup to Grandma’s Marathon from afar for the first time. After helping found the event in 1977 with the North Shore Striders, a local running club, he oversaw it from infancy to adulthood. But last year, he decided enough was enough.

Since retiring from Grandma’s, he has run (unsuccessfully) for St. Louis County commissioner, pursued the executive director position at Spirit Mountain and served as interim director of Visit Duluth.

“I don’t know what it is, but there’s another chapter for me,” said the Duluth Central and Minnesota Duluth graduate. “If I didn’t look for that other chapter, I’d just be doing the marathon forever.”

While he searches for that next chapter, Keenan has had more time to dote on his three children and eight grandchildren. And he’s much better about completing honey-do lists prepared by his wife, Carrie.

Here’s what he’s not doing: fretting over the weather, race-day logistics, volunteer vacancies or anything else related to the 38th Grandma’s Marathon, set for Saturday.

“It’s odd having the two-week race crush without Scott being around,” Bob Gustafson, public relations director for Grandma’s, said last week.

Keenan admits to mixed emotions about being outside of the fray for the first time.

“I know with the type of person he is, he’s probably wishing that he was in the middle of it all,” Gustafson said. “I know I would be if I was in a situation where I had 37 years into the same position, especially something you built from Day 1.

“At the same time, I would imagine he’s OK not having all the day-to-day functions and all of the crossing off the lists and making sure that everything’s taken care of.”

Jon Carlson, Keenan’s replacement as executive director of Grandma’s Marathon, agreed.

“When you do something for 37 years, you have to have some heartstrings getting pulled because it’s like, ‘OK, this time of the year this is what I’d be doing and it’s got to be done right,’ ” Carlson said.

Grandma’s began when Keenan and the North Shore Striders decided to put on a 26.2-mile race along what they expected would be one of the most scenic courses in America. The only problem as they geared up for the inaugural running was a lack of money. Keenan said the group had $23.50 in its checking account. He began soliciting corporate sponsorships.

With a handwritten budget in tow, he told businesses: “Anybody who gives me 600 bucks, I’m going to name the race after them.”

Officials with the Grandma’s restaurant chain obliged, and just like that one of the more quirky marathon monikers was born.

The early goal was to someday get as big as the Paavo Nurmi Marathon in Hurley, Wis., which had about 1,000 runners at the time. Grandma’s surpassed that total in its third year, 1979, with 1,682 entrants and 1,290 finishers.

“At that point, we knew we had something,” Keenan said.

By 1983, the starting field had swollen to 7,000. Keenan’s “baby” was growing up.

This weekend, Minnesota’s oldest marathon — and the 16th-largest one in the nation — will have just shy of 8,000 runners at the starting line in Two Harbors, while the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and Friday’s William A. Irvin 5K will have record fields of 8,498 and 2,029, respectively.

And for the first time, Keenan won’t be directing the chaos. Instead, his plans Saturday include getting inducted into the Grandma’s Marathon Hall of Fame in the afternoon and hosting a small get-together of family and friends in the evening.

And sleeping in.

“I won’t have to get up at 3 a.m. and have five alarm clocks set,” he said, noting years past. “I’d even have hotels calling me at home for a back-up wake-up call.”

Keenan said he almost stepped down in 2011. But then Grandma’s secured the rights to the USA Half Marathon Championships for 2012 and 2013, so he stuck around. Ultimately, he said, the stress wore on him. And for a self-professed perfectionist, Keenan no longer knew if he could be all in.

“If I can’t do something 100 percent, then I’m not going to do it,” he said.

That passion was evident to Keenan’s co-workers.

“The only thing that Scott really cared about was that this thing shined,” Carlson said. “That’s always been his biggest concern, is making sure Grandma’s Marathon is spotlighted and Duluth is spotlighted.”

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