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Grandma’s Marathon stays the course under new leadership

Jon Carlson is the new executive director of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth. He replaces Scott Keenan, who ended his 37-year run as the Grandma’s boss following last year’s race. Carlson said the 2014 race changes are primarily cosmetic including personalized bibs for runners, a permanent move to a 6:15 a.m. start time for the half marathon and a “shakeup” of the entertainment lineup. Clint Austin / 1 / 2
Bill Brown2 / 2

Perched ominously on the edge of Jon Carlson’s desk during a recent interview was a three-ring binder titled “Jon’s Calendar.”

Not a personal planner, a tidy to-do list or a stack of Post-it notes, but a binder.

And it’s filling up fast for the first-year executive director of Grandma’s Marathon.

When Scott Keenan ended his 37-year run as Grandma’s boss following last year’s race, the ensuing search for his replacement ultimately led to Carlson, who had been race director since 2003. He officially took over Sept. 1.

With marathon week bearing down like a lead pack of runners, Carlson said his transition to the top spot has gone seamlessly thanks to a dedicated staff that defines stability.

“That has made my job a little bit easier, knowing that these people have been around and they know exactly what needs to happen,” said Carlson, who noted his disdain for micromanaging. “I kind of get out of the way with a lot of things because they know what they’re doing.”

So far, it’s working for the easygoing 60-year-old with big, broad shoulders and a handshake that threatens to engulf its acquaintance. Carlson and the Grandma’s staff are humming along heading into Saturday’s Fitger’s 5K, which signals the unofficial start of the Northland’s racing season. After this weekend, everybody’s attention turns to Minnesota’s oldest marathon, set for June 21. More than 17,000 runners are expected for Grandma’s and its accompanying Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and William A. Irvin 5K.

Often overlooked amid the numbers discussion is the fact that Grandma’s is a destination race. Very few of the participants live in Duluth or the immediate area. Instead, they have to work a little harder to get to the starting line, which contrasts sharply with bigger, more prominent events like those in Chicago and the Twin Cities.

As of late last week, registration for the marathon was up about     10 percent from 2013. By April 10, 6,729 people had signed up for the 26.2-mile race, 625 more than the same date a year ago. In fact, it took until May 11 to reach that number last spring.

For all intents and purposes, the half marathon is full at about 8,100 runners, a planned 7.5 percent increase over 2013 when the field for the half exceeded the full for the first time (6,618 finishers to 5,613). Participation in Grandma’s Marathon declined every year after peaking at 9,888 in 2008. The reasons most often cited include the economic downturn, more races regionally and three straight years of sweltering heat for marathon weekend.

“It was kind of a perfect storm that led to the declining numbers,” Grandma’s public relations director Bob Gustafson said.

Now, it looks like that trend will be reversed. Perhaps the biggest reason for the uptick has been a renewed focus on marketing, especially social media. Carlson said Grandma’s had 16,300 Facebook “likes” on Sept. 1; that number has ballooned to more than 20,000.

An increased advertising budget has allowed for greater penetration in the Twin Cities, as well.

“It’s really paying off,” Bill Brown, Carlson’s replacement as race director, said.

An improving economy and two straight years of ideal running weather have helped, too.

No wholesale changes

Carlson, a 1971 graduate of Hermantown High School and a decorated runner in his own right — a Boston qualifier in 1985, his marathon PR time is 2 hours, 45 minutes — has said all along he wouldn’t make massive changes to a race that’s among the most respected and best-run in the nation.

That was especially true for his first year at the helm. He likened Grandma’s to a nice house with a sturdy foundation that occasionally needs a few coats of touch-up paint. In other words, cosmetic changes.

In 2014, some of those include personalized bibs for runners, a permanent move to 6:15 a.m. as a starting time for the half marathon and a “shakeup” of the entertainment lineup. Carlson wasn’t quite ready to announce the retooled lineup late last week, though he hinted at significant changes.

“We’re trying something new, and we think it’s going to work,” Carlson said. “I think people are going to be really excited when they start hearing about the new entertainment that we have coming in.”

Other than cosmetics, the 38th Grandma’s Marathon will look remarkably similar to the first 37, even with a new leader calling the shots.

“When you come from a situation where you’ve had one person leading the organization for 37 years, it’s definitely been a transition,” Gustafson said. “But Scott left a roadmap — everything was in place.”

Carlson studied that roadmap for 10 years after retiring from Minnesota Power to join Grandma’s. He jumped right into his new role in September and, incredibly, says he has yet to call Keenan for help or advice. Instead, he relies on the staff around him.

“They have those answers,” Carlson said. “If you keep calling him, you don’t learn as much or as fast.”

One thing his coworkers can’t help with is weather, always one of the biggest storylines of marathon weekend. Last year’s 50-degree temperatures and overcast sky, combined with a tail wind, was almost perfect. For runners, at least.

The cool conditions dented attendance at the tents, cutting into what normally is a big revenue source.

Consequently, Carlson knows what he’d like to see this year.

“My prayers always are for 48 to 50 degrees at the start, and then about 1 o’clock the sun to come out and it’s 85 degrees,” he said.

Fitger’s 5K to crown new champions

The defending champions of the Fitger’s 5K race are not entered, so Saturday’s event will crown new winners.

Men’s champ Joe Moore and women’s titlist Morgan Place did not enter the 5-kilometer run that unofficially kicks off the running season in the Northland.

Five-time champion Katie McGee of Duluth, runner-up a year ago, is expected back as is Duluth’s Amanda Lepisto, who was third in 2013.

Among the men’s favorites are Trevor Zimak of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who was third last year, Duluth’s David Hyopponen and Duluth’s Dillon Johnson.

 The race begins at 9 a.m. Saturday outside Fitger’s Inn on Superior Street.