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Grandma's Marathon: From 'never again' to 'as long as I can'

Jim Engel of Wakefield, Mich., hangs out in the start-line corral before Grandma's Marathon on Saturday in Two Harbors. This was Engel's 31st Grandma's and 188th marathon overall. He expects to run his 200th along the North Shore next June. Tyler Schank /

About 18 miles into the 1988 Grandma's Marathon, Jim Engel made up his mind. His dalliance with marathoning would be over just as soon as he reached the finish line.

"I was sure that this would never happen again," Engel of Wakefield, Mich., recalled last week. "I was positive."

You know how this story plays out.

Engel wore his finisher's shirt to a wedding reception that same night — speak to the gregarious 63-year-old former teacher for any length of time and this will make perfect sense. There, fellow runners grilled him on his Grandma's time and, when he responded 4 hours, 17 minutes and 11 seconds, they "snickered" and told Engel, in not so many words, "forget about Boston."

He wasn't even thinking about the Boston Marathon. Heck, his running career had started and ended hours earlier. But he became intrigued — and a little irked — wondering why in the world he wouldn't be able to enter the United States' most prestigious footrace.

"I said, 'Well, why not? Is it longer or something?' I had no idea, no clue," Engel said. "And then they told me, 'You gotta run over an hour faster.' "

So he returned to Grandma's in 1989 ... and '90 ... and '91 ... and, well, every year since. He was trying to get to Boston via Duluth. Finally, in 1992, Engel hammered out a personal-best 3:14:52 to qualify for the first of what would become four Boston Marathons. He was on a 3:08 pace through Mile 24, Engel says, until "somebody put a piano on my back."

Engel ran that first Grandma's on a dare. He referred to it as a "near-death experience." Engel continues to tempt fate.

Saturday, he trudged along the shores of Gitche Gumee for the 31st consecutive year, knocking out marathon No. 188 overall in 4:34:46. Engel has gone from "never again" to "as long as I can."

"He'll probably keep going until he can't anymore," said Engel's wife, Denise.

On at least four occasions, Engel almost couldn't.

A week after the 1995 Grandma's, he made the following entry into his running log: "Right knee, very bad." It turned out to be torn cartilage, and Engel had surgery in September.

"I said, 'Doc, let's get this one done as quick as possible. I got a marathon to train for," Engel remembered. "Of course, that (1996) was the 100th Boston. I wasn't gonna miss that."

A few years later, the exact same scenario played out in the left knee.

Then, following his first race of 2003, Engel noted in his log, "tough breathing."

"So, like any good runner, I trained twice as hard," he joked.

Shortly after that October's Whistlestop race in Ashland, Engel finally relented to reality. Something was amiss. The diagnosis: 98 percent of his left anterior descending artery was blocked. Engel, who would learn of four other arteries with 40-60 percent blockages, had a stent placed in his heart.

Which explains why, in 2004, "I officially became a jogger."

Engel was a decade out from the worst of the calamities, at least in his mind. In 2013, a nasty spell of plantar fasciitis ended his running streak at 819 days.

It didn't stop his Grandma's streak, however. Engel keeps coming back to the North Shore every June for a variety of reasons. The oldest of his three daughters, Janelle, lives in Superior. He relishes the course — hugging the big lake never gets old. Engel feeds off the enthusiasm of the crowds, he said, and logistically Grandma's is unsurpassed.

There's another reason, as well. Engel is responsible for bringing the Vaseline.

Every year, he stands at the 2:40-pace balloon in the starting corral with a jar of Vaseline held aloft. Before long, runners are digging in.

"They all recognize me as the Vaseline guy," Engel said.

Even before he finished his 31st Grandma's on Saturday, Engel was looking ahead to the 2019 event. If his schedule sticks, that will mark his 200th marathon. He routinely knocks out 13-plus a year.

It's reminiscent of lyrics from an old Alan Jackson song — "too much of a good thing is a good thing."

His wife doesn't understand the obsession. Denise admits she's no runner.

"I run out to get the milk or chase after the kids, but that's it," she said.

After the heart scare, Engel was advised to quit pursuing fast times. He still could run, but his pace — and, by extension, heart rate — needed to come down.

Despite the setbacks, Engel's determination to get through 26.2 miles hasn't changed.

"If I must, I'll crawl to that finish line," he said. "I've started 188 marathons and I've finished 188 marathons."