No Grandma’s Marathon hard on the heart and wallet for some

The cancellation of the event's 44th annual running has had a sentimental impact for some and a financial impact for professionals who were seeking prize money.

Christopher Kipyego of Kenya, left (bib No. 2), edged Teklu Deneke of Ethiopia at the finish line to win the 2011 Grandma's Marathon. Kipyego, who has returned to run the race seven times since, is one of many professional runners who have to find other means to make ends meet as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused cancellations of races across the country, including the 2020 Grandma's Marathon. (News Tribune / File)

Bill Staab won’t be in Duluth this weekend, but that doesn’t mean the longtime president of the New York-based West Side Runners’ Club won’t be keeping a close eye on the weather in Duluth, in particular for Saturday.

That’s because Saturday would have been the 44th annual running of Grandma’s Marathon, had it not been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If there are ideal conditions for running on Saturday, that will be the proverbial salt in the wound, insult to injury, whatever you want to call it, to describe how Staab will be feeling.

“If the weather is ideal, I will mourn with even deeper sorrow about the cancellation,” he said.

And that’s the way it is looking.


Grandma’s Marathon has generally been blessed with great running weather, and Saturday’s forecast near Lake Superior calls for mostly cloudy conditions and a high of 62, and better yet, a 9 mph wind from the northeast.

While Staab is no doubt disappointed, it has been even tougher for the elite runners he works with, in particular Ethiopians and other immigrants, many of whom depend on prize money from events like Grandma’s Marathon to pay expenses.

“I cannot emphasize how difficult it has been for top runners to break their backs training and training and then have the rug pulled out under their legs with race cancellations due to the coronavirus,” Staab said.

Chris Kipyego, the 2011 Grandma’s Marathon men’s champion from Kenya, still runs the race every year.

Kipyego was smart and wisely invested some of the prize money he earned over the years, which is giving him a small source of income now.

“Most athletes use these (races) to make some income, but this year it’s really hard for most of my friends,” he said. “This year has been really hard for most athletes.”

This would have been Kipyego’s ninth Grandma’s Marathon.

“Meaning, Grandma’s remains one of my favorite marathons,” he said. “Cheers to all athletes who were planning to run this year.”


Some undoubtedly still are.

Ingrid Hornibrook, public information officer with the Duluth Police Department, said many people have kept their hotel reservations, so this will likely be a busy weekend in Duluth. While DPD has not heard of any big planned runs, she said if individuals want to do the route, they should follow the same rules of road running they would follow any other day.

This could make Canal Park a really interesting place come Saturday.

While Kipyego said he will miss his annual trip to Duluth, he understands why it was canceled. “For me personally, I put my health and that of others first, so I am good with it,” he said. “I am lucky because I am home in Kenya with my family.”

According to a Grandma’s Marathon recent economic impact study, in terms of direct effect, weekend attendees in 2019 spent an estimated $10.7 million in the Duluth area, supporting 100 jobs and generating $2.5 million in labor income. In terms of total effect, Grandma’s Marathon weekend generated an estimated $20.6 million of economic activity in St. Louis County, including $5.7 million in labor income.

Grandma’s Marathon spent $3.1 million to host the event and hired 84 workers, and race events supported employment for 244 workers.

While you can’t replace that, the fact business in Minnesota has opened up a bit and many people kept their hotel reservations certainly can’t hurt defraying at least some of the loss.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, an avid runner herself, said the impact goes beyond just the numbers. For so many people, Grandma’s Marathon is Duluth.


“I already miss this annual event and the energy of the week preceding the race,” Larson said. “Since elected mayor, I’ve been at the finish line welcoming runners home. It’s been an amazing gift to see the determination, grit and heart of thousands of people crossing that line. It makes me teary, truthfully. People have trained for this, have used it as their personal motivation. Many are running in memory of someone, or crossing the line in the company of friends or family members. As a runner, I know that feeling of pain and relief mixed together, so it’s just incredibly moving to witness that moment when they cross the finish line.”

The unexpected bright side of this, Larson said, has been discovering the joy of the virtual race, with Larson registering for all three. She already completed the full marathon and the half and plans to finish the trifecta this weekend with her 5K.

For Staab’s team, it’s not quite so simple.

Most of the West Side Runners’ Club members are immigrants. Staab has been president of the club for 42 years and knows how important the big marathons are to their livelihood.

Staab said it has been a joy working with Sarah Culver and the rest of the Grandma’s Marathon team. That’s why their runners keep coming back.

Ethiopians Birhanu Dare Kemal, Tadesse Yae Dabi and Diriba Degefa Yigezu all planned on racing Grandma’s Marathon, which is known for its fast course and Lake Superior views. There was potential for women’s entrants as well before coronavirus hit and plans fell through.

“We had a fantastic team positioned to run the New York City Half Marathon on March 15th and that race was abruptly canceled just a couple of days before the event, just after many of our runners had flown back from Ethiopia,” Staab said. “Since that time there have not been any races of any quality all over the USA.”

That makes it hard for these runners to pay the rent and support their families. Some have gone to Albuquerque, New Mexico, because it’s cheaper than New York.


Ethiopia has had very little coronavirus to date, but if any runners return home from the U.S., they immediately have to go to a hotel for 14 days to quarantine and pay for it.

While Staab isn’t an agent, he sometimes acts as one, trying to negotiate getting his better competitors into popular national races such as Grandma’s.

While Staab called the prospects of seeing races at large urban centers “remote” for 2020, there is hope for races at smaller venues still this year. The Fargo Marathon, for example, will go on as planned in late August, according to a story that just broke Thursday.

“These are the most difficult of times for foreign athletes,” said Staab, who described his runners as amazing people. “Their visas usually preclude allowing them to work in any fashion in the U.S. except as athletes, so it is a very trying time. All expectations shot, all training done for special events for naught. It is devastating for them but somehow they seem to be ever optimistic.”

Jon Nowacki is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune
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