With tens of thousands of people coming to town this weekend for Grandma’s Marathon, police in Duluth and other areas along the marathon route have plans in place to keep people safe.
While various local and state law enforcement agencies are coordinating with one another in the lead-up to Saturday’s race, police rely on the public, too, to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary.
“We want people to do the old ‘see something, say something,’” said Duluth police Lt. Chad Nagorski, incident commander for the marathon event.
After Boston, a focus on security
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, police are trying to strike a balance between playing an active security role and providing a welcoming experience for runners and spectators.
Nagorski said that while Grandma’s Marathon isn’t anywhere near as large as a Boston or Chicago marathon, for instance, the environment surrounding the race courses can be similar.
“(Grandma’s) is very similar to Boston in the way that it starts in a much smaller city and ends in a larger city,” he said, and Nagorski said law enforcement has learned from those larger events.
Duluth was one of the first police departments in the country to work on a marathon security plan, and coordinators from the department have attended an annual marathon safety conference each year from the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4).
“Overall, (the conference is about) marathon safety,” he said. “How do you work with police departments? How do you work with other agencies to make your event safe?”
On race day, law enforcement from each jurisdiction along the race route will be responsible for its own part of the race course. This involves Two Harbors police at the very start of the race, with the Lake and St. Louis County sheriff’s offices taking up security along most of the rural portions of the course before it crosses into Duluth city limits.
The Minnesota State Patrol also will provide assistance along the route, and Duluth police reserve officers and volunteers also will help direct traffic on Saturday.
Focus on Canal Park
Canal Park is the main focus for police in Duluth because the largest crowds will gather at the finish line there to cheer on friends and family and participate in the celebration once the race is over.
Most of the work to prepare will be done early Saturday morning, because it’s too difficult to cordon off a busy Canal Park on a Friday night, Nagorski said.
Police will conduct a safety sweep in Canal Park early Saturday using canines trained to detect explosives. Because of Canal Park is such a large area and police have such a short amount of time, they’ll use both their own dogs as well as trained K-9s from the St. Paul Police Department.
On race day, two large dump trucks full of sand also will be placed on Canal Park Drive where it intersects with Railroad Street, allowing runners through but effectively blocking off automobile traffic to Canal Park Drive.
The move is in response to recent incidents where vehicles were used to ram into a crowd full of people, such as during 2016 attack in Nice, France, when 86 people were killed, and in 2017 during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one person dead.
Expanded bike patrols
The Duluth Police Department also has expanded its bicycle enforcement program in recent years, and there will be police on bike patrol in Canal Park on race day. The goal, Nagorski said, is to make it easy for police and medical response teams to get through the crowds easily.
The Duluth Fire Department also will have firefighters on bicycles, he said, and park rangers also will be in the mix on Saturday.
A marathon course is about 26 miles long, but so is the city of Duluth, and having officers on bike patrol Saturday also frees up police squad cars to patrol the rest of the city, Nagorski said.
“Our goal (with the bike patrols) is to be self-contained in that we can take care of problems along the marathon course, and patrol squads can continue responding to regular 911 calls throughout the city,” he said.
Nagorski estimated there would be 20 to 25 times as many police in Canal Park on Saturday as on a regular day. There will be uniformed officers, who both provide security and interact with the crowd on a fun day. A number of plainclothes officers also will be present that day, he said.
Watching the skies
Weather is also a concern, with possible rain and thunderstorms being forecast for Saturday morning. In the event of inclement weather, Nagorski said there are larger spaces such as the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center where crowds can take shelter.
Police are coordinating with meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Duluth, who will provide pinpoint forecasts throughout the day. The goal, Nagorski said, is to have up-to-date information on any severe weather as early as possible on race day.
“Once you the marathon starts, it's hard to round up 15,000 people along 26.2 miles,” he said. “So that's why you have to really be watching continually.”
Overall, while Nagorski certainly has a lot on his mind leading up to race day, months of planning and a call to spectators to keep an eye out for anything suspicious will make for a positive experience for all.
"There's a lot of work that goes into planning," he said. "We take safety and security seriously, and it's something that we try to get better at every year. Our goal is to help people, number one, feel safe, and number two, just have a good time."