Dave LeGarde: Marathon's early days set great precedent
The earliest memory I have of Grandma's Marathon is standing on Superior Street near Fitger's watching Garry Bjorklund float past like he was out for a Sunday stroll. He ran with striking fluidity, his face showing no effects of having just run m...
The earliest memory I have of Grandma's Marathon is standing on Superior Street near Fitger's watching Garry Bjorklund float past like he was out for a Sunday stroll. He ran with striking fluidity, his face showing no effects of having just run more than 23 miles.
It was the peak of an amazing career for the Proctor High School graduate, who also starred at the University of Minnesota and competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
He is among the most decorated distance runners in state history.
Bjorklund won going away that June morning in 1980, easily besting the field of 3,000 for his second Grandma's victory. His time of 2 hours and 10 minutes was among the world's best, and put Duluth on the international map of quality marathons.
The next year, despite some reputable competition, he was again the favorite. Conditions that morning were ideal, as overcast skies, drizzle and temperatures in the low 50s helped make for an unforgettable race.
Matching the defending champ stride for stride that day was Dick Beardsley, who was actually an employee at a running store owned by Bjorklund. The two Minnesotans left everyone in their wake shortly after the gun went off.
Cruising down the North Shore through fog and mist, it was a two-man race for nearly 20 miles. They even shared water and took turns in the lead as they headed for London Road. It looked like the duel would last to the very end.
Bjorklund briefly pushed ahead, only to have his rival throw in a tremendous surge near the Lester River Bridge.
For the remainder of the race, Beardsley went even harder as heavy crowds lined the streets of downtown Duluth to witness the closing miles.
Beardsley's winning time of 2:09:36 remains a course record and is the benchmark most often referred to when the event arrives each year. It is clearly the defining moment in Grandma's Marathon history.
From the top of what was then the railroad overpass on Fifth Avenue West, I had a great vantage point of the action. Several memories come to mind when the local news channels show footage from that morning.
There was an electricity and buzz through downtown as the race progressed. Spectators with transistor radios relayed reports from the course about two runners who had broken from the pack. Everyone was talking about Bjorklund.
When Beardsley finally pulled away, attention turned to a possible course record as the anticipation grew with each passing minute. The crowd on the overpass became thicker as someone announced he was only a few blocks away.
Suddenly, a loud roar went up from fans near the Radisson on Superior Street, where a herd of bicycles was turning down the avenue. In a practice long since outlawed by Grandma's officials, at least 20 cyclists were just in front of the leader.
This group of race officials and citizens rolled right in front of me, with Beardsley somewhat hidden just a few steps behind. It was quite a sight to behold, and, as the group sped downward toward the DECC, I remember being worried about a crash.
Shortly after, Bjorklund came by. Looking a bit fatigued, he still had the look of a champion as he began the final mile. His time of 2:11 would still be a world-class effort more than 25 years later.
As that excitement died down, talk began about the women's race and a potential record-setting performance. Just a short time later, New Zealand's Lorraine Moller flew by on her way to doing just that.
It's fun to look back on the early years of the race. The event, and the city, have changed in many ways since then.
The railroad overpass I referred to earlier is now above a freeway. Runners now see a giant ship permanently docked just a few hundred yards from the finish. The accompanying kids' races, 5K run, half marathon and fitness expo bring even more people to the Twin Ports.
Grandma's Marathon has made remarkable progress, yet the mission remains the same. It's perhaps the most runner-friendly race in the country, and it provides an unmatched experience for spectators as well.
Contact Dave LeGarde at email@example.com .