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Tuba, ukulele runner motivation a longtime London Road tradition

Elton Brown (left) and Christina Cotruvo have played music for runners in Grandma's Marathon over the years. Submitted photo1 / 3
Christina Cotruvo will play her ukulele for Grandma's Marathon runners at 42nd Avenue East and London Road on Saturday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Jessica Eliason of Thompson, N.D., smiles as tuba player Elton Brown plays a tune while running a short distance alongside her during Grandma's Marathon in 2013. Since he plays so many songs, Brown calls Grandma's his annual "lip marathon." File / News Tribune3 / 3

On the corner of 42nd Avenue East and London Road sits a duo of musical majesty.

One musician strums the four strings of her ukulele. The other blurts out low tones from his tuba.

Runners travel miles to hear Christina Cotruvo and Elton Brown perform. Of course, when you’ve been entertaining the runners at the 20 mile marker of Grandma’s Marathon for the past 20 years, you’re bound to gain some recognition.

“I don’t know many people who are running, but occasionally, there will be people who look for me and stop for a selfie,” Brown said. “I wonder, ‘How does that person know me?’ Probably because I’m here every year. I’m a fixture.”

The tradition started in 1998, when Cotruvo decided to host some friends for the marathon at her house, which sits along the racecourse.

“It was the second year I was there,” she said. “I was, like, ‘Oh, 10,000 people run by my house. Maybe I should have a party.’”

One of the people who showed up was Brown, the pastor of her church, Hope United Methodist. And he didn’t come alone. With him was his large, rusted brass horn. For the next several hours, he would entertain participants of the half-marathon and full marathon that passed by Cotruvo’s house.

“I call it my lip marathon,” Brown said. “I’ll play for about six hours, and by the time I’m done, my lower lip is numb.”

But just because Brown has embarked on his own endurance contest doesn’t mean he’s static when he’s pumping out low-octave notes. Occasionally, he’ll get up and walk around — and even follow some of the joggers who might be running on empty.

In one memorable exploit, Brown serenaded a woman who walked by him. Instead of letting her pass alone, he hopped out of his chair and followed her, blurting out the tune to “You are my sunshine.” Perplexed by the strange musician following her, she picked up the pace to outrun his bellowing tones.

“My joke is, she’s trying to get away from me, but I say I’ve done my job,” Brown said. “I’ve done that a number of times.”

“We’ve put together a playlist of a few dozen songs,” Cotruvo said. “It’s kind of that upbeat ‘In heaven there is no beer,’ ‘When the saints come marching in’ type of music that people will start picking up their feet again.”

Cotruvo moved to Duluth in 1995 and bought her house on London Road not long after that. For the first few years of hosting friends, she left the responsibility of playing music to Brown. Then, about seven years ago, she accompanied him with her harp. A few years after that, she switched to the ukulele.

Seeing two musicians entertaining runners isn’t an exception to the weirdness that ensues with Grandma’s Marathon; it’s the norm. However, the duo doesn’t play to keep the race weird. They perform to help motivate the runners when the race gets hard.

“I’m so impressed by the wave of humanity that has started way up at Two Harbors and goes by my place,” Cotruvo said. “The sense of being part of a community, part of a larger whole, it’s great. But I’m always amazed. People have been training for this; they come from other continents to come by my house.”

Brown ran the marathon every year from 1981 to 1985, with his fastest time coming in at 3 hours and 16 minutes. Now that his knees keep the 74-year-old from completing the 26.2-mile race, he stays involved by motivating the other runners.

“I remember this myself, how encouraging it was to have people entertaining you and distracting you from when it hurts,” Brown said. “I appreciate what it takes to do what they do. It’s emotional for me, and I remember when I ran, how helpful it was to have music groups to distract you.”

Cotruvo doesn’t live in the same house that she did when she first hosted her marathon party. She moved closer to the lake, about a block away from the original spot. But that hasn’t stopped her and Brown from staking out their claim at the original corner. And it certainly won’t stop the duo from continuing their tradition.

“There were times we both missed, but one of us was out there,” Cotruvo said. “We have no plans of stopping anytime soon.”

Even Brown’s recent battle with prostate cancer and the months of chemotherapy won’t prevent him from playing.

“This year will be a bit of a test because it is a workout. I’m doing pretty well, but I’m noticing my stamina isn’t what it used to be. I get fatigued quickly,” Brown said. “It’ll be interesting to see whether I can maintain the number of hours of doing it this year.”