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'You feel alive': Bjorklund regular still competing at 81

Margaret Cass, 81, of Grand Rapids, walks 5 miles every day at 6 a.m. Cass has participated in numerous races in the last 25 years and will take on the William A. Irvin 5K and Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon again at Grandma's this year.Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Margaret Cass walks by Prairie Lake on her daily 5-miler on May 22. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com2 / 2

GRAND RAPIDS — Every morning, Margaret Cass takes a long power walk.

"Unless it's 20 below," the 81-year-old Cass said. "I draw the line there."

On rare occasions, such as this coming Saturday, her walk unfolds in front of thousands of people as Cass will undertake another Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon — a race she's participated in for roughly 20 years after learning from a friend that Grandma's Marathon allowed walkers in its races.

Most days, though, Cass puts in her 5 miles and roughly 10,000 morning steps quietly and away from watchful eyes.

When the News Tribune met Cass at her home in the country north of town a few weeks ago, she was already suited up and ready to go. Her husband Ross, retired after a long career in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, shared a pleasantry as he left for an early morning coffee group.

The house they share splits the distance between Prairie Lake and the Itasca County Transfer Station along Shoal Lake Road. Margaret Cass's walk is a giant loop — to the lake and back, past her house to the transfer station then turning heel for home.

Eager to hit the road, Cass exited her driveway and turned left, moving toward the lake.

"I've walked next to her," said Duluth's Carol Beach, whose late mother used to be a neighbor to Cass. "She's flying. I've said to Margaret, 'You walk so fast.' "

Walking without earbuds or headphones, Cass hoofed to the beat of her heart and the soundtrack of birds. Save for Cass, the road was empty. Most of the morning commuters were still rising from their beds.

Margaret Cass poses with 42 medals around her neck. (Tyler Schank / DNT)"I'm not really very fast," she said, pumping along. "I used to be. I used to walk 12-minute miles."

A look at past Grandma's results online shows she's slowed in the past 10 years — walking the half-marathon in 3 hours, 5 minutes as recently as 2008 compared to 3:47 last year, a 17-minute-per-mile pace. But that's hardly the point. She does it for her health. She does it because she's a body in perpetual motion.

"I don't do much sitting," said Cass, telling her life story as she moved. A mother to three and grandmother or great grandmother to six more, she attended Bemidji State University in her 50s.

"I was scared to death the first night of classes," she said, recalling herself surrounded by young people. "I survived."

She went on to teach preschool for seven years before retiring.

The swing of her arms came to a stop at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 38. A car whizzed by.

"Rush hour," Cass deadpanned — beating it across the road toward the Ardo Town Hall and Prairie Lake, where she once not too long ago was chased by a frenzied goose at the causeway where she turns around. She'd noticed the lineup of fuzzy goslings first.

"I have great respect for the geese," she said.

The S-curved hill down to the lake is her biggest challenge walking back.

"It takes all of my air," she said, putting the conversation on hold and leaning into the walk. It was the only time she labored.

Cass has enjoyed hiking and camping throughout her life. She walked the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, sections at a time, in her 60s, calling it the most scenic walk she's known. And she's been to every state park in Minnesota, putting her footprints on every trail designated by the Minnesota State Park Hiking Club.

"I love the Minnesota state parks," she said.

The sweet smell of horses filled the air as Cass talked about the reason she walks first thing every morning. She does it before she eats to avoid cramping.

"I find that late in the day it's hard to find a block of time," she said. "You get up and start your day this way, you feel alive."

In the lead-up to Grandma's, she and Ross will settle into a favorite local camping spot near the start of the race, then she'll power her way through the William A. Irvin 5K on Friday. It's a good warm-up for the next day's half-marathon and it ensures she gets in her daily walk. She takes in a lot of the iconic local races — including spring's Fitger's 5K and fall's WhistleStop Half-marathon in Ashland. Back home in the couple's den, she's got all the soft gear and hardware to prove it, including a quilt on display made from race shirts and dozens of bibs, medals and trophies.

"I save all of it," she said. "I'm a saver."

If the den is a testimonial to her racing, the tidy kitchen is one for her generosity. Last year, Cass baked 239 dozen cookies as part of her tea ministry — an activity she's been doing for 14 years.

"You name it I bake it," she said, rattling off types of cookies and describing how she dresses the part with apron and hat and carts around her cups and saucers of fine china to assisted living facilities around Grand Rapids. She serves groups of residents tea and cookies while they reminisce. She conducts five of these a month.

"To spread a little joy," she said, dabbing a runny nose with her handkerchief.

Her morning walk nearing its end, she sped through the interview's final topics.

At the start of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, "it's mass confusion," she said. She typically positions herself near the back and at the left edge of the crowd so as to keep her bearings and keep out of the fray.

After the race, she and Ross usually linger in Two Harbors until Monday.

Along the race route, she said she enjoys seeing all of the faces of what she called the "cheerleaders," who she inspires in droves.

"I know it's because of my age," she said, "but I'm not ready for the couch yet."