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Marathon, half marathon runners weather muggy conditions

Joe Klein of Richmond, Minn., pours a bottle of water over his head at the finish line of Grandma's Marathon in Duluth on Saturday. Runners contended with warm, humid conditions. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

So you thought running a marathon was hard?

How about running a marathon when your pre-race self is already encased in a sweaty sheen wrought by oppressive humidity?

Enjoy.

Officially, the temperature at the Grandma's Marathon start line in Two Harbors was 65.1 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. That doesn't sound so bad, but 88 percent humidity has a way of depleting electrolytes faster than runners can replace them. It didn't get better as the morning progressed. Far be it for Duluth to complain about too much sun, but the timing of its appearance wasn't great.

Alex Sunnarborg was running his first marathon. The 24-year-old Orlando, Fla., native, who now makes his home in New York, knows a thing or two about heat. So he was happy to make Grandma's his first 26.2-miler, knowing what he knows about Northeastern Minnesota. Sunnarborg has family here.

"I went through the first, probably, seven (miles) feeling good and I thought there might be a little more shade with the trees, but it was just pure heat raining down on everyone," he said after coming across in 3 hours, 49 minutes, 12 seconds. "It got pretty darn hot."

Sunnarborg reached the halfway point in 1:32:20. Uh-oh.

"I was on a decent pace, but then I was like, 'Oh, geez, that was probably a mistake,' " he said.

By the time he arrived in Canal Park, the black flags were flying.

Grandma's uses the American College of Sports Medicine's color-coded flag system. Both Saturday's half-marathon at 6:15 a.m. and the full at 7:45 started with green flags, or low-risk. Those gave way to yellow (moderate), then red (high) and, starting at 11:30, black (extremely high). They are determined by the WetBulb Globe Temperature, which takes into account a combination of factors, including humidity, ambient temperature and radiant temperature, according to Ben Nelson, Grandma's medical director.

Consequently, Nelson and the medical tent saw an increase in heat-related illness. They treated 369 people Saturday, up from a six-year low of 184 in 2015.

"This was the busiest day we've seen in a while," Nelson said.

A whopping 577 visited the medical tent in 2009.

Before Saturday, Grandma's had enjoyed excellent running weather five straight years. It also was 65 degrees in 2012, but that year overcast skies offered protection.

Nelson said there were more than 400 medical volunteers along the course Saturday.

Despite the conditions, there were a record number of finishers across both races. From 9,572 marathon starters, 7,501 finished, topping the previous high of 6,967 in 2007. The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon had 9,593 starters and 7,919 finishers, easily exceeding 2014's 7,296.

Veteran struggles to finish

It wasn't hard finding runners struggling with the heat and humidity, especially as the day wore on.

"They're dropping like flies," one bystander said.

They came across the finish line dazed and confused, often hunching over, with their hands on their knees. They were quickly given water and escorted to the back. If they continued to struggle, they were escorted to the medical tent. The ones who couldn't stand were whisked away in a wheelchair.

Tim Lindgren of Crystal, Minn., crossed the finish and immediately made a beeline to this tiny piece of shade just off to the side, as if it were an oasis. He braced himself against the fence.

Lindgren, 51, looked spent.

"I am," he said.

But Lindgren avoided needing immediate attention and started coming around. He finished the marathon in 3:31:57, just shy of his top time of 3:27. It was Lindgren's third straight Grandma's, and he said he knew it wasn't going to be his fastest as soon as he woke up. He tried to take it easier at the start. He only walked once during the 26.2-mile race, for about 100 meters during the Mile 23 water stop.

The marathon veteran said it was as exhausted as he ever felt after a race, unlike 2015.

"Last year was perfect," he said. "I tried to speed up about Mile 18, but it wasn't going to happen. Then I just tried to hang on. It just kept getting hotter and hotter."

Lindgren's parents live in Cornucopia on Wisconsin's South Shore, and his friends gather for the marathon. Grandma's is like a reunion.

Despite the muggy conditions, Lindgren wasn't deterred.

"Grandma's is my favorite," he said. "I'm going to try to do it every spring. I enjoy it. It's got great fan and volunteer support."

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