When Grandma’s Marathon was canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, race officials said registered runners could compete in a virtual race, submit a time and snag a finisher’s T-shirt.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson saw the challenge — and raised it.

“I decided to sign up for all three races,” she said in a recent interview: 26.2 miles, 13.1 miles and the 5K. “There’s no other year you could do the marathon and the half-marathon.”

This has been a season of heavy mileage for the second-term mayor who starts the day with a 6- to 7-mile run on roads or trails and ends it with a walk through her East Hillside neighborhood with her husband of 21 years, Doug Zaun.

Mayor Emily Larson walks and talks with her husband Doug Zaun around the University of Minnesota Duluth campus Tuesday, July 28.  (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Mayor Emily Larson walks and talks with her husband Doug Zaun around the University of Minnesota Duluth campus Tuesday, July 28. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

“That has been an important thing for me,” she said. “Important physically, important spiritually.”

Duluth’s 39th mayor is in the almost unprecedented situation of leading the city during a pandemic (Clarence R. Magney was in charge during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918). Larson’s life has all the familiar pandemic-themed touchstones: a son who returned from college early and another one in high school; a home-turned-workspace for both her and Zaun, of Wagner Zaun Architecture; 12-hour shifts spent in front of a computer; Zoom calls begetting Zoom calls. And, sweetly, the return of family dinners.

She is also the final stamp on the big, urgent decisions wrought by this period in history.

Flashback: 7 months

When Larson took her oath of office in early January, she was about a month out from a wicked snowstorm, nearly 22 inches, that shut down the city for days — a period she described in her second inauguration speech as some of the most “difficult and trying weather of our time.”

Her speech that night at the Harborside Ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center had moments that seem almost prescient now, specifically an anecdote about Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who recalled an old professor telling him: “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

“As mayor, I’ve found this quote to be fundamentally true,” she wrote in her speech. “On one hand, you work for months to realize a vision — and you want to see that thing happen now. And then there’s an interruption. An emergency. Something unexpected happens, and suddenly we’re now focused on this new thing, and the original plan gets lost.”

The four-year plan she laid out that night included affordable housing and child care, clean energy and visibility for residents who feel unseen. She planned to reveal a specific plan in the spring.

But then, interruption: The State of the City address, scheduled to be held at the West Theater in March, was canceled because of COVID-19.

Mayor Emily Larson is silhouetted by a window in her office at City Hall Friday, July 24, while on a Zoom call. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Mayor Emily Larson is silhouetted by a window in her office at City Hall Friday, July 24, while on a Zoom call. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)


Lifting the veil

At its core, Larson believes that Duluth is the same city it was seven months ago — people defined by hard work, tenacity, grit and tangible realness. It has the same struggles as other cities right now, including adapting to pandemic-related restrictions.

What COVID-19 has done, she said, is lift a veil on problems that have always existed.

“Whether it’s health disparities, income disparities, racial disparities, concerns about your family,” she said. “COVID has made them more vivid and more vibrant.”

In the midst of the pandemic, the biggest decisions she has had to make, she said, involve staffing — whether it’s laying off city employees or asking them to take a furlough. She problem-solves by committee, she said, a squad that includes Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman, Elena Foshay of Duluth Workforce Development, Mike Tusken, who heads the Duluth Police Department, and Human Rights Officer Carl Crawford.

But she knows that ultimately, it comes down to her.

“That (job) is a family, a mortgage, a dream, your profession, your identity,” she said. “I really do know how much we are asking from our staff. I’m experiencing this as a mayor, a mom, as a boss, as a daughter and as a community member. All those layers are there. I do, again, have deep empathy for our staff, and those decisions are really hard. No one makes them because they want to. It’s not a paycheck; it’s a life.”

Her predecessor, former mayor Don Ness, calls Larson “the most emotionally intelligent elected official I’ve come in contact with” — a superlative that he also calls her greatest strength.

“I’ve just been so impressed with how Mayor Larson has comported herself,” he said. “She is somebody with incredible emotional intelligence and confidence and resilience, and that has served her incredibly well during this pandemic.”

Mayor Emily Larson talks with her hands while on a Zoom interview in her office Friday, July 24. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Mayor Emily Larson talks with her hands while on a Zoom interview in her office Friday, July 24. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)


Feeling AOC

Of recent interest to Larson and Zaun was U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and the viral speech she delivered to Congress inspired by a verbal attack from U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla. In it, the congresswoman described the scene where he called her a “f****** b****” on the steps of the Capitol Building — before she talked about the broader issue of dehumanization.

It hit Larson in a way that elicited a wide-eyed, part roar of “aah!” from the mayor, which she re-enacted during an interview on Zoom. She said she and her husband spent time discussing the speech and its realities.

“What she said resonated with me in my core, about the kind of permission we have given socially and publicly to erode people — to erode women, which is my experience — but to erode people,” Larson said. “To see them as other than human. To disregard and disrespect their humanity. That’s fundamentally wrong.

“She was no victim in that speech. She was naming and revealing what is done, but often tucked under, kind of hidden under the rug.”

Of course, there is dissent in Larson's world: the barrage of emails about mandatory masks, layoffs at the library, critiques about trying to remove the word “chief” from city job titles. In late June, Larson shared on Twitter a small sample of the extremes in feedback she gets from residents. Exhibit A: a postcard with the words “foolish, dense, dim-witted, moronic, loser …” seemingly printed in black Sharpie. Exhibit B: a heart-decorated note with the words “with a thankful heart.”

Larson learned years ago not to read the comments attached to online news stories. But if she did, she could take it.

“I so believe in democracy and the First Amendment and freedom of speech,” she said. “I’m a fierce defender of that. I do think people have a right to their view, even if it’s mean or targeted or personal, completely off-base or sexist. But what I have learned and what COVID has reaffirmed for me is, I know who I am. I know why I’m here. I have a purpose. I have a focus, and the permission the community gives me to lead in the role of mayor is given at the ballot box. And three times I’ve been on the ballot — for City Council and twice for mayor — each time with a commanding and significant win.”

A cabinet in Mayor Emily Larson's office at City Hall includes a button that reads "Pantsuit nation," a framed stitching of the word "plucky," which is defined as having or showing determined courage in the face of difficulties, a piece quoting Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech and a piece that says "Thrive." (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
A cabinet in Mayor Emily Larson's office at City Hall includes a button that reads "Pantsuit nation," a framed stitching of the word "plucky," which is defined as having or showing determined courage in the face of difficulties, a piece quoting Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech and a piece that says "Thrive." (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)


On the road

During Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, Larson and Zaun began finding positive messages chalked on the sidewalks along their regular walking routes, or on fence posts:

“Keep your head up.”

“We can do this, Duluth.”

“Stick together.”

Then there were direct messages: “We believe in you Mayor Larson” or the city staff, “Thanks for everything you’re doing.”

Zaun said he never expected Larson to be mayor — but he knew she was destined for leadership.

“I have a bias, of course,” he said. “She’s a pretty amazing person, and she just keeps getting stronger and stronger. I’m sort of in awe of what she’s doing and how she’s doing it. She’s a natural leader, which I figured out right from the start when we were dating.”

Larson completed the full marathon — plus a tad extra mileage — in mid-June, an unconventional race during an unconventional year. Larson and a running buddy started at Chamber’s Grove and worked their way to Brighton Beach. In between: ice cream, coffee, a change of clothes, a friend playing kazoo, visits to small businesses.

“Find the joy of what is helping you release your stress and stay grounded,” Larson said. “That’s what running has done for me. Finding my strength, finding my stride, balancing my stress, and it really helped me find joy. I feel so much happier when I’m able to do those things.”