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Local View: First Grandma's marathoners were an amusing, odd sight

From the column: "Cars pulled over and curiosity got the best of the drivers. From their windows, they yelled out, 'Where are you running?' And then they would laugh when Louks would reply, 'To Duluth.' 'No, really, where are you going?' the drivers would ask again. 'Really, Duluth.' Even bigger chuckles followed. The motorists couldn’t believe anyone would even think of running that."

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Photo by Patti Hallback / Kerry Louks, the athletic director at Duluth Central High School and longtime cross-country coach, was once offered $100 for his finisher T-shirt from the first Grandma’s Marathon in 1977. He was tempted.
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It was 45 years ago — on June 25, 1977 — that the first Grandma’s Marathon was held. I had the honor of chatting with two of the 116 finishers of that inaugural marathon, who many of you will recognize as long-time, beloved cross-country and track coaches at Central and East high schools. Kerry Louks and Dave Wicker shared great memories with me.

I knew Louks was involved in the North Shore Striders, the running group that created Grandma’s Marathon, serving as one of its officers for many years. He said the birth of Grandma’s began in August 1976, after the Billing Park 10K, one of many races organized in the Duluth-Superior area at the time. Having a beer after that race, the North Shore Striders officers and some other key people had a brief meeting. Maybe five to 10 minutes, as Louks remembered.

“Should we have a marathon?” someone asked. It was unanimously approved.

What month? September was ruled out due to the City of Lakes Marathon. August had the Paavo Nurmi Marathon, and July could be hot. So Grandma’s Marathon landed in June.

I asked Louks and Wicker about their training. Both were strong, consistent runners. Wicker was a UMD junior and had just set the mile track record. He was running three-mile races. They both thought a marathon would be a fun thing to try. Their longest-distance training runs to that point? Louks had done a 20-miler; Wicker had gone 15 miles.

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As originally laid out, the Grandma’s course started at the split of the expressway and Scenic Highway 61 in Two Harbors. Marathon races were not a common event in the 70s. And so, that first race started out with runners following a red truck (driven by Gordy Nichols). Cars pulled over and curiosity got the best of the drivers. From their windows, they yelled out, “Where are you running?” And then they would laugh when Louks would reply, “To Duluth.”

“No, really, where are you going?” the drivers would ask again.

“Really, Duluth.” Even bigger chuckles followed. The motorists couldn’t believe anyone would even think of running that.

Now, 45 years later, there are 9,000 runners who can’t wait to run that distance next Saturday, June 18.

Both Wicker and Louks remember that the first Grandma’s started in the late morning, at 10 a.m., and that the day was hot with the sun beating down. Grandma’s restaurant was the initial sponsor, and the intent was for the runners to finish in Canal Park and then stay for lunch and beers.

Louks was on track to finish with a time of 2:36, meaning his miles were under six minutes. The temperature was rising to 85 degrees with sunny skies and high humidity. And so, at about the halfway mark, Louks stood a moment too long, under a hose shower on the course. His socks (100% cotton in those days) and shoes were completely soaked, resulting in the painful accumulation of blood blisters as the miles ticked by.

Another marathoner, Dr. John Leppi, caught up with Louks. When Dr. Leppi heard of Louks’ blister dilemma, he sent his son, who was biking alongside, to ride ahead and get his medical bag and a clean pair of socks. They all met up at Lester River, where Louks was handed a scalpel to slice open his more than 40 blood blisters. Blood oozed out onto a towel. With dry socks and wet shoes, Louks struggled to the finish line running on the sides of his feet. Louks still achieved a time of 3:28, even with his bloody, blistered feet.

Wicker didn’t set a time goal that first Grandma’s and was feeling pretty good in spite of the heat. On London Road, he ran on the sidewalk and an acquaintance was there on a bike. She rode alongside, encouraging him for quite a while. The last few miles Wicker ran by himself, still feeling pretty good, except for his sun-burned lips. He finished seventh with a time of 2:43:36.

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Wicker’s girlfriend-now-wife Julie Horns was 19 and one of only six women to complete that inaugural marathon. She ran quite a while with a 15-year-old boy, and she was able to just barely eke out ahead of him at the finish line. She finished with a time of 3:48:43.

Blisters weren’t the only obstacle Louks contended with on the course that day. He actually had to stop for a red light and let crossing cars proceed. Louks spotted the race’s traffic-control person toddling back to his abandoned post with a beverage.

Louks believes he was the first marathoner to get medical attention. When he went to the ER, for treatment to avoid infection, the medical professionals there had no clue a marathon was even happening that day.

Another claim-to-fame story shared by Wicker was that his teammate, Neil Franz, a 1977 University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate, dropped out of that first race but has finished every Grandma’s Marathon since then.

Wicker’s dad drove the trail car for the last runner in the inaugural race, who came in at 6:05.

Who was the first-place finisher in 1977? Garry Bjorklund, with a time of 2:21:54. He finished almost five minutes ahead of the second-place finisher. There are 8,000 registered runners for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon this year.

Louks has continued to be involved in running or volunteering with Grandma’s Marathon, in some way or another, for 45 years. If you’re running this year, as you approach the finish line, Louks will be there, continuing in his volunteer position as Finish Line Captain.

Some 30 to 40 years ago, Louks was offered $100 for his red finisher T-shirt from 1977. He almost sold it. Will this great piece of memorabilia show up at the North Shore Striders reunion being held on the evening of this year’s marathon?

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Thanks, North Shore Striders and those inaugural marathoners for paving the way 45 years ago to what has become a summer highlight for Duluth.

Patti Hallback of Duluth is a “Grambassador” for Grandma’s Marathon this year, blogging and posting on social media. She wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Patti Hallback

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