Emerging from 15 months of cancelations and shutdowns, most of it stemming from the deadly coronavirus-caused COVID-19 pandemic, we’re definitely full force right now into welcome-back season. As in, welcome back to tourists (and crowded highways), reopened theaters, indoor restaurant dining, Huskies baseball at the Wade, the public library, and so much more, all made possible by vaccinations now available to nearly anyone eager to protect themselves and others.

This week in particular brings two big-time welcome-backs in Duluth with the reopening of the Lakewalk and with the return of Grandma’s Marathon.

While Minnesota’s favorite lakeshore trail wasn’t closed by the pandemic, its storm-destroyed stretch near the Duluth ship canal was missed perhaps as much as anything during our months of little to do and few places to go. Talk about tough timing for a premiere outdoor ribbon of hiking and pedaling recreation.

“It is going to be packed," Mayor Emily Larson said at a ceremony this month ahead of its reopening. "It's going to be packed with kids, with adults, with families, with people discovering Duluth for the first time, with people who have lived here for generations.”

Just like it’s supposed to be. Just like normal.

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Getting it back to that wasn’t simple — or cheap — after a series of storms and monster waves off Lake Superior battered and ripped up huge chunks of the Lakewalk in 2017 and 2018. With an investment of $16 million-plus, much of it from the state and from federal disaster sources, the new trail is engineered to withstand such punishment. An 18-inch-thick concrete wall and boulders the size of cars and pickups now provide stability.

“It was a treasure that was developed on a garbage pile. … There was no drainage. There was no engineering,” Larson said. “What we have been able to do (now) is … be more climate-adaptive."

The final design incorporated many community ideas, Jim Topie, president of the Friends of the Lakewalk citizens' group, said at the ceremony, according to News Tribune coverage.

The final result promises to be a "world-class experience for tourists," he said.

"Once again,” added Matt Baumgartner, president of the Canal Park Business Association, “we have a place to exercise, a place to learn, a place to connect spiritually. Once again we have that place where community and congregation intersect with commerce."

Just like it’s supposed to be. Just like normal.

Which is what this weekend will feel a lot more like with Grandma’s Marathon’s triumphant return to Canal Park and the North Shore. The footrace has been a mark-it-on-the-calendar, can’t-miss annual Duluth event since 1977. That’s an impressive 44-year tradition of leg cramps, personal accomplishment, and finisher T-shirts.

Grandma's Marathon is expected to be one of the country's first major running events since the start of the pandemic.

For many Northlanders, the pandemic became real — perhaps a bit too real — early last summer when Grandma’s weekend was scrubbed. Its return, with pre-race festivities scheduled to begin Thursday, won’t be exactly like it has been. The post-race party, for example, with live music starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, will be at the more-spacious Bayfront Festival Park rather than in Canal Park. But the return brings with it another flash of hope for a world after illness and worry and isolation. That becomes a little more real.

“We want people to enjoy themselves, to feel safe, and to say good things about our race and our community when they leave here,” Grandma's Marathon Marketing and Public Relations Director Zach Schneider said in a statement. “Grandma's was built on the idea of community coming together, and we need that in a different but critically important way this year."

In the interest of normalcy, do we ever.