Grandma’s Marathon became the latest event canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as organizers called off the race Tuesday for the first time in its 44-year history.

Executive director Shane Bauer said the decision to cancel the marathon, along with the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and the William A. Irvin 5K on June 19-20, was primarily done to keep participants and the community safe and to not potentially burden the health care system in Duluth.

“Even in a normal year, hospital beds are the biggest consideration,” Bauer said. “If we were to get hot and humid conditions, we could overwhelm the medical community, so there was just no way (to race) with COVID-19 — especially with the predicted surge (of cases) in June.

“It was not a good scenario, so we really didn’t have a choice. You could trigger a peak in the local spread. It could be a recipe for disaster.”

Bauer said organizers relied on the expertise of Ben Nelson, a physician at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center and Grandma’s Marathon medical director since 2009.

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“(A June peak) is an estimation based upon information that we’re getting from a lot of different sources,” Nelson said. “All these different modeling systems are trying to predict how this thing will unfold, develop and accelerate. I don’t think we know exactly how it’s going to be. Duluth, with influenza, is typically a month behind the Twin Cities, and our (COVID-19) numbers are consistent with that at the early stages of the outbreak.

“We don’t think this thing is going to be over with by June.”

Joe Wicklund, a former president of the Grandma’s board of directors and now a vice chair, agreed that cancellation was the only logical solution.

“I don’t think people are aware that that weekend in June already is the most taxing weekend of the year for our medical providers,” Wicklund said. “We tried to make the decision not only as intelligently and strategically as possible, but as orderly as possible so folks aren’t left feeling they have to make the choice because of the uncertainty of what might happen in June.”

With a year’s worth of planning and preparation, postponing the race until later in the year was not an option, Bauer said.

“We determined in the very beginning of our contingency planning that July and August were out with (hotter) weather, and then you get into the school (season) and we already exhaust every bus in northern Minnesota to transport our runners.”

Bauer estimated 18,300 runners would have competed in the weekend of events.

When the thousands of volunteers and spectators are included, it’s a monumental loss for the Duluth economy.

“It’s the unofficial kickoff to our big summer season for visitors coming here, and it’s something we’re going to feel across every sector of our city and not just the tourism industry,” said Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth. “It’s so unfortunate, but definitely a decision that’s the right one and we respect how difficult it was for their board and staff to make that call.”

Tanski estimates Grandma’s weekend generates $9 million-$10 million in overall economic impact to the city.

Duluth is not immune to the economic challenges seen worldwide since the new coronavirus took over all facets of life.

“It’s the unknown that we are dealing with,” Tanski said. “It’s incredibly challenging for anyone in our industry to know when this will pass and what things will look like for anyone who is planning an event or a meeting or a competition. The real challenge is not knowing.”

Likewise, Kristi Stokes, president and COO of the Greater Downtown Council, said the loss of income will be hard to overcome.

“Grandma’s has always signaled the start of the summer tourist season and the loss of this event will be felt far and wide, not just in the downtown, but throughout our region,” she said. “I think this also brings a new reality for many people in the Duluth area. We are facing a temporary new normal and such difficult decisions, even though they are economically devastating, must be made for the health and safety of our community.”

Grandma's Marathon is not offering refunds of the $110-$135 entry fees or allowing racers to defer their entry, though it is offering a 20% discount toward the 2021 race schedule.

“That’s an industry standard; the money is already spent,” Bauer said of the no-refund policy. “A lot of races will allow you to defer your entry to the next year. For us, we have a set number (of entrants) and we can only take so many and it fills up every year. … so, for example, if you defer the half-marathon from this year, it would practically be full when registration opens Oct. 1.

“A lot of the things that make Grandma’s Marathon so great, also make it tough in these situations because those options aren’t available to us.”

Entrants will be automatically entered into a virtual version of the race they registered in where they can run their race wherever and whenever they want. Results will then be submitted to a virtual submission platform. All finishers who upload their result will earn a finisher shirt and medal, Bauer said.

Katie McGee of Duluth has run more than 15 previous Grandma’s marathons and maintains an avid training regimen. She understands the decision to cancel, but like many is heartbroken.

“Even though I have run it a number of times, it’s still my favorite marathon and has a special place in my heart,” she said.

McGee also coaches a marathon training class at Lake Superior College, and now those students no longer have a chance to fulfill their goal.

“They were all looking forward to it and training for it, so I am sad for them because for many of them it was their first time doing either the half or the marathon,” McGee said.

Bauer said organizers are planning a “bigger and better event” for the 45th anniversary of Grandma’s weekend, set for June 18-19, 2021, however that’s a long way off for some runners who pinpointed this mid-June as the highlight of their year.

“It’s hard when there’s nothing to look forward to, no matter what your passion is, because now there’s nothing on the horizon,” McGee said.

More details about the virtual race can be found at grandmasmarathon.com/covid19, as well as information about a discount on entries for the 45th anniversary of Grandma's Marathon on June 18-19, 2021.

This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. March 31 with additional details from marathon organizers. It was originally posted at 9:59 a.m. March 31.

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