26.2 miles and then some: International marathon network starts in Duluth, extends to Bhutan and beyond

Working with the Bhutan Olympic Committee, Bill Fischer, a Duluth native who makes his home in Nagano, Japan, was asked to help the Bhutan International Marathon attract more Japanese runners.The goal was to use the upstart race as a vehicle for ...

Working with the Bhutan Olympic Committee, Bill Fischer, a Duluth native who makes his home in Nagano, Japan, was asked to help the Bhutan International Marathon attract more Japanese runners.
The goal was to use the upstart race as a vehicle for spurring tourism in the small Asian country tucked into the eastern Himalayas.
Fischer, who works in international product development, is well-versed when the topic is travel. But, he concedes, “I don’t know anything about marathons.”
Scott Keenan does.
Fischer sought out the founder of Grandma’s Marathon, who retired in 2013. They met for the first time last summer at Caribou Coffee in Canal Park. Keenan left unsure if he was ready to sacrifice some of the time he spends chasing around his six grandchildren. After a second meeting, Keenan was sold, the prospects of a new venture allowing him to dust off a long-held idea about building international running partnerships modeled after the Sister Cities program, of which he became familiar while serving as a Duluth city councilor.
Hence, the Sister Marathons Peace Initiative was hatched. After months in the incubator, and months of recruiting U.S. marathons, the nonprofit endeavor officially launched in mid-March with an infrastructure consisting of 21 American races and two international ones. Not surprisingly, Grandma’s Marathon was the first to come on board.
Two months later, more than 4,000 people have become members. Doing so provides runners with exclusive “opportunities to explore the world through running events, destination retreats and homestay exchanges,” according to a news release that accompanied the initiative’s launch. “Members currently have access to free homestays in 100s of cities across the globe.”
Promoting peace and cultural understanding through an international running exchange is the objective.
Fischer says one of the chief benefits is the streamlining of travel.
“There are lots of international marathons, and marathon runners love to travel for their sport,” he said Friday while in Duluth. “There just wasn’t an effective way for them all to get together and do what they want to do.”
Fischer now is tasked with adding international marathons, to go with Bhutan and the Mount Abu International Trail Marathon in India. The fourth Bhutan marathon, next March, will be a kind of guinea pig. Keenan would like to bring a contingent of 100 to a race that had about 225 participants at its most recent running.
To that end, Keenan is replicating a strategy that worked beautifully at his Minnesuing Acres Women’s Running Retreat last October. There, he made Kara Goucher the headliner, and the response was astonishing - 20 states, plus South Korea and Great Britain, were represented, Keenan said. For Bhutan, he called on another Northlander to create the Scott Jurek Running Retreat.

The concept is to produce an all-encompassing experience that goes way beyond pounding out 26.2 miles.
“We don’t just want people going to Bhutan,” Keenan said. “We want people to go to Bhutan - and maybe other countries - and have a tremendous experience, have traditional Bhutanese dinners with the Olympic committee, go on runs with Scott Jurek.”
Jurek’s inclusion means an obscure marathon in a country sandwiched between China and India will have a pair of Duluth natives and one from Proctor playing leading roles.
Bhutan, where Buddhism is the dominant religion, bills itself as one of the happiest countries in the world - perhaps because TV wasn’t introduced there until 1999. Indeed, on the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s website, it claims to measure progress not by “Gross Domestic Product but by Gross National Happiness.”
Who wouldn’t want to run a marathon there?
Of the 4,000-plus Sister Marathon members,
17 percent have agreed to host free homestays. It’s proof that the 45-year-old Fischer and 62-year-old Keenan are onto something.
“We’ll hit a home run on this thing, I’m pretty sure,” Keenan said.
The 21 U.S. marathons already signed up include prolific ones in Portland, Ore., Seattle, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Lake Tahoe and, of course, Duluth. The list is expected to grow - race directors have been more than receptive.
Keenan admits the relationships he forged over 37 years of guiding Grandma’s have proven vital to this project. His reputation is what stirred Fischer’s interest and led to the initial sales pitch at Caribou Coffee. He noticed Keenan was retired and doing some consulting, so why not try him?
“Start at the top, the way I see it,” Fischer joked. “Scott’s experience, opportunities and connections enabled it to grow this quickly.”
Keenan has no regrets. He says the success of last fall’s Minnesuing retreat invigorated him, and “brings me back a little bit” to how he felt starting Grandma’s. Sister Marathons has all the checklist items he could ask for - the chance to build something from scratch; international flavor; a cultural component; running; and travel.
His initial trepidation last summer quickly waned.
“After talking to my wife, I was all in,” Keenan said.
For more information or to join, go to .

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