32nd Grandma's Marathon is running strong

Before there was Grandma's Marathon, there was the North Shore Striders running club and an idea. Between 1976 and today, the notion of a marathon along Lake Superior burgeoned into this coming weekend's trio of Grandma's races, which are synonym...

Before there was Grandma's Marathon, there was the North Shore Striders running club and an idea.

Between 1976 and today, the notion of a marathon along Lake Superior burgeoned into this coming weekend's trio of Grandma's races, which are synonymous with Duluth.

The marquee race -- the 32nd annual Grandma's Marathon -- went from 150 runners, a budget of $649.51 and one employee in 1977, to 9,888 runners this Saturday, a $2.5 million budget and a year-round staff of seven. The number of volunteers has increased from about 30 to more than 4,500.

Though the journey between 1976 and this coming weekend hasn't been a simple one, past and present race backers say it has been one packed with prudent growth and lucky timing.

A cadre of volunteers from the running club, led by Scott Keenan, began approaching potential sponsors for the initial $650 they figured they needed for the first race.


While most businesses politely declined, start-up restaurant Grandma's Saloon & Deli opted to put up the money.

The pitch to Grandma's Restaurant Co., Keenan said, was that they probably would recoup the cash in profits from drinks and food on race day. Those profits never materialized.

"We didn't make a dime on it," said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma's Restaurant Co., though its name is perpetually linked to the internationally known race.

The goal, Keenan said, was to eventually be as big as the Paavo Nurmi Marathon in Hurley, Wis., the largest area marathon at that time, typically drawing 1,000 runners.

By year three, Grandma's topped Hurley's figures.

"We knew by the second year with the numbers, we had something special," Keenan said.

Restaurant breaks away

While the Duluth restaurant company backed the growing endeavor through its first decade -- and hired Keenan to run it -- the race ended up consistently costing Grandma's, Daugherty said.


In 1986, Grandma's Restaurant Co. sponsored the race for the final year.

Liability, Daugherty said, was the biggest culprit.

"The marathon had become so large that we didn't want to have the restaurants jeopardized," he said, in addition to never making a profit.

Because the restaurant company's founders, Andy Borg and Mick Paulucci, had deep pockets, other businesses didn't donate, current and former Grandma's Restaurant officials said.

"Unless you're really a nonprofit, you don't have the marketing ability and tax deductibility that you should have," to gather sponsors effectively, said John Foschi, former Grandma's controller and current chairman for Grandma's Marathon Board of Directors.

So the groups split amicably, and in 1987 Scott Keenan quit working for Grandma's and launched the Grandma's Marathon Duluth Inc., a nonprofit.

By 1989 the nonprofit raised $135,500 from sponsors, a figure that reached $480,750 in 2007. In-kind contributions now yield about the same amount annually.

Revenue also comes from registrations, contributions, T-shirt sales, the spaghetti dinner, a health and fitness exposition, and interest and investment income.


Keenan and others credit the steady growth partly to locale.

Grandma's golden touch

The running course between Two Harbors and Canal Park that hugs Lake Superior is particularly picturesque.

The race is always on a Saturday, while most major marathons are run on Sundays to minimize traffic disruption.

That leads to many more runners and their families spending a weekend here, instead of just Saturday night and Sunday.

And the $75 entrance fee is cheaper than many major city marathons.

"Going to Grandma's is so different than going to a major city marathon," said Ryan Lamppa, researcher for Running USA, a national nonprofit promoting distance running.

Grandma's is the largest marathon in a city Duluth's size, Lamppa said, and also one of the few June races in the country.


This country's first running trend began in the late 1970s, growing in tandem with the marathon, Lamppa said.

Organizers of the first race helped jumpstart its renown by managing to attract 10,000-meter Olympian Garry Bjorklund, who grew up in the area.

Then in 1980, when President Carter requested a boycott of the U.S. Olympics, Bjorklund announced that instead of running in Moscow, he would head to Duluth for Grandma's Marathon, adding another shot of national prominence to the race.

To generate more interest in the 1990s, after participation figures leveled off, the organization added new races, including the half-marathon in 1991.

"A lot of people said that we will kill the marathon by adding a half-marathon," Keenan said.

While half-marathons did become more popular in some cities, the full 26.2 race remains Duluth's premier event of the weekend.

This weekend 17,849 people are set to run in one of three races: the full marathon, half marathon, and 5-kilometer.

Ongoing Process


But Lamppa said he believes the main reason Grandma's flourished is because the community and organization built a reputation for putting on an excellent set of races.

"They have an outstanding product," Lamppa said. "There's no doubt that Grandma's over the last 20 plus years has generated a lot of good will."

Many locals echo that sentiment.

Duluth embraces the runners and their families, said John Goldfine, a former chairman of the race's board.

"Go to a lot of these towns where there's a race, and they're treated like they're an inconvenience," he said.

Now Grandma's is capitalizing on the second boom in running over the past decade, driven primarily by people interested in good health, not necessarily competition, Lamppa said.

That general interest in health meshes well with the nonprofit's other efforts, such as the Young Athletes Foundation, which does everything from buy shoes for cross-country student runners who can't afford them, to organizing runs for kids, to bringing speakers into schools to talk about healthy living.

In 2007 alone, the foundation awarded $34,810 for these kinds of activities, along with a multitude of other fitness programs for kids.



Lamppa said he believes Grandma's probably could expand by another few thousand runners.

"I'm pretty sure Scott Keenan and his crew wants to keep up the quality, and I'm sure adding a couple thousand may have an impact on that," he said.

Keeping up the quality remains top priority, race directors said.

That's why Kennan's crew has allowed, on average,275 additional slots a year to be added over the past decade -- and some years hasn't allowed any growth in the main race -- capping the number of runners far below what it could be.

"We are a quality race put on for the citizen runners, and we're going to maintain that," Foschi promised.

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