Running: Grandma's Marathon enters virtual world

Though the official race day was scrubbed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, many runners are still seeking finish lines somewhere.

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Sharon Yung’s second Grandma’s Marathon was quite different from her first.

Her 26.2-mile run didn’t begin from its usual starting position outside Two Harbors, nor did it end at the traditional Canal Park finish line. She also ran it two Saturdays before the scheduled start date.

Plus, there were no fans lining the road and no volunteers handing out water.

“There were times when I was needing encouragement (near the end), I would envision the fans and the supporters at the water stations,” Yung said.

Yung ran what is termed a virtual marathon, which Grandma’s Marathon turned to after canceling the 44th running of the race in April due to the new coronavirus pandemic.


Registered runners are allowed to run a 26.2-mile distance (or 13.1 miles if registered for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon) on any day on a course of their choosing — even a treadmill — and then submit those times online by July 31 to receive their race T-shirt.

“I am very happy it was an option,” Yung said. “The nice thing was that I could pick the weather, pick the day and pick the route.

“Grandma’s did a good job in doing all they could. They had no control over (the virus), so it’s not going to deter me from joining Grandma’s in the future.”

A nurse practitioner by trade, Yung has served as an area director for two local publications during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was injured before her only previous marathon, the 2016 Grandma’s, and had been training with two local groups, Running With Friends and Another Mother Runner, in hopes of a better performance this year.

“I took the last few years to recover from the injuries and I felt this was the year to take my time and train,” she said. “It’s been a fun and enjoyable season. I was happy that we were still able to have the virtual run and celebrate somehow.”

Yung, a 44-year-old Duluth mother of three, ran alongside friend Heidi Cragun on June 6. Yung started on Lakeview Drive, ran up Hawks Ridge and on Seven Bridges Road before turning up Scenic Highway 61 to Knife River. She turned around and finished the 26.2 miles close to Congdon Elementary in approximately 4 hours and 18 minutes.

Each of her sons, Julien, Aiden and Elliot, as well as her husband, Tony, all ran a mile near the end of the run to encourage her.

Cragun, who has run 10 previous marathons — including her first Grandma’s last year — wasn’t registered for the race but trained with Yung during the spring.


“It was more of a training run until the day of,” Cragun said. “Then I had that ‘I-have-to-stick-with-another-person (mentality)’ and that helped out mentally. I started training to support her and then ended up doing it myself. It was great.”

As of Friday afternoon, 786 runners had submitted their marathon times. Nearly 18,400 had registered for the marathon, half-marathon and William A. Irvin 5K before they were canceled, while nearly 600 signed up post-cancellation to do the virtual run.

“There have been a lot of different comments across the board, but everyone is making the best of the situation,” Grandma’s Marathon Executive Director Shane Bauer said. “There’s obviously no experience like running the North Shore from Two Harbors to Duluth, but a lot of people are grateful to have the opportunity to reach their goal.”

Race has virtual meaning for Evans

Few have competed in as many Grandma’s Marathons as Matt Evans.

The 54-year-old, who grew up in Duluth and teaches physics and a distance running class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, ran his 37th Grandma’s on May 31, this time from Duluth to Two Harbors.

“Grandma’s is what’s keeping me going,” he said. “I want to do 50 of them; I have a lot of years to go.”

Though he has run every race since 1984, Evans has a way to go just to catch brothers Jim and Alan. Jim, who lives in Woodbury, Minnesota, has finished every race except in 1981 when he tried hitchhiking to Duluth and didn’t make it. Alan, a resident of Beaver Dams, New York, owns the family-best time of 2:28:56 in 1995 and began his streak in 1981.

Matt was in Duluth for the inaugural Grandma’s in 1977, an 11-year-old watching Jim run. He’s maintained an affinity for his hometown ever since, even moving back this spring after his college shut down due to COVID-19 and turned to virtual tutoring.


Evans has been staying in Duluth with Shelly Pierson, his fiancee of 11 years, who supported him during the race but did not run it for a fourth time. They plan to get married in late July whether the pandemic allows for a reception or not.

“I really missed chatting with fellow runners, and feeding off the energy of the volunteers,” Evans said. “Fortunately, I had Shelly to support me, complete with a single yellow balloon that she placed at the mile markers to simulate the race-day experience.”

Evans, who eventually plans on moving back to Duluth full-time, was able to train on trails with friends he has known for 30-plus years.

“I’ve been training a lot more during this time than I normally would because normally I would be working all the time,” he said.

He finished his run/walk in 4:31:00.

“I walk a lot in the last part of the race so if I am out in the middle of nowhere, nobody’s going to see me,” he said before his virtual race. “For the last 20 years, it’s just been about finishing.”

Beyond just finishing, the entire Grandma’s experience — even a virtual Grandma’s — has a deep meaning for Evans.

“What I keep telling myself and what I tell everyone else, ‘You make the race what it’s supposed to be for you,’ ” he said. “For me, that means this virtual race counts. Twenty-six point two miles running with the thoughts in my head that this is Grandma’s Marathon for me. That makes it count.”


Runners can take their time

Though Grandma’s organizers are discouraging it, many runners are expected to take to the road next Saturday when the race originally was scheduled.

Duluth’s Jessica Hehir plans to wait a week to avoid the potential congestion and give her an extra week to train.

Though there is construction on the French River bridge that may prevent traversing the exact path, she plans on running as much of the actual course as she can “because it will feel like I did the actual race.”

Her ultimate goal is to cross the finish line in Canal Park.

“It will definitely be at a slower, more gentle pace,” she said during the early part of her training. “It will be nice to have a goal to work toward, something to focus on and something not so gloom and doom.”

Hehir’s training was held back initially due to apprehension of what the coronavirus could do to her compromised immune system, but once she learned about the virtual run she was completely on board.

“I was a little late to come to terms with how serious this is. I fully support what Grandma’s is doing and I love that they have a virtual run,” she said. “It will be nice to have the motivation to keep going and keep getting the fresh air and keep up with all those good habits I had put in place since the new year.”

Virtual run is for entrants in all races

Not everyone is running a virtual marathon. Half-marathoners and those entered in the 5K also can post their times.


Ollie Meyer, 56, competed in the William A. Irvin 5K nearly a month ago with his 19-year-old daughter, Jenna, a soon-to-be sophomore at St. Scholastica, where Ollie and his wife, Mary, work in the admissions department.

Jenna runs it, Ollie walks it.

“I thought it was great,” Ollie said. “Being that they couldn’t refund your entry — which I respect completely and I had no beef with them not refunding me — but at least they were able to offer us something. We still get our T-shirts and our swag.”

This marked the fifth Irvin 5K for the pair. In past years, when Jenna was in Key Club at Duluth East High School, she involved her family in volunteering on race day.

“We’ve done it to get involved in Grandma’s spirit during marathon week,” Ollie said. “It’s fun to participate in that event and it’s neat to be involved. I’m thankful we can still do it virtually.”

That’s the viewpoint Bauer wants to hear. He’s remained positive that this year can still be a success, and that next year’s 45th version of the marathon could be the best ever.

“There’s a lot of talk that when we get on the other side of this (pandemic), you could even see a running boom because of how people have become active during the quarantine stage,” he said.

  • Bauer said his organization has put together a plan and submitted it to the city to run the Park Point 5-Miler on July 16. Minnesota’s oldest road race, entering its 49th year, runs up and down Minnesota Avenue on Park Point. A decision is expected soon.


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