Watching Grandma’s Marathon as a youngster, Kara Goucher recalls thinking, “no thanks - not for me.”

Goucher observed the torment on runners’ faces, including those of her aunt and uncle, while spectating near the Kitchi Gammi Club on East Superior Street. The 1996 Duluth East graduate was intrigued by the idea of training and racing, but not over 26.2 miles.

Her reluctance waned, of course, and Goucher debuted at the distance in 2008 with a third-place showing at New York City, where her time of 2 hours, 25 minutes, 53 seconds doubled as the fastest first marathon by an American woman.

Running has brought Goucher to a pair of Olympics - on the track in Beijing in 2008 and for the marathon in London in 2012 - but one place it hasn’t brought her is the Two Harbors start line for Grandma’s. Not yet, anyways, though she expects that to change.

“As I’ve gotten a little bit older and my career is gradually winding down, I start to look at bucket-list items, and Grandma’s Marathon is definitely on top of that,” Goucher said last week.

She was a gut-wrenching fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in February, narrowly missing a chance to compete this summer in Rio. Goucher’s focus now is on a to-be-determined fall race. She hopes to represent the U.S. at next year’s world championships in London.

February’s near-miss stung. The top three that day in Los Angeles qualified, and Goucher was about a minute behind third-place Shalane Flanagan. Immediately after, Goucher turned her attention to reaching Rio on the track. She was burnt out, though, and cut that plan short.

“I had to make a mature decision - is this one race worth potentially digging a hole that I can’t get out of,” the 37-year-old said. “So I was like, ‘This is not meant to be.’ ”

Goucher may not have run Grandma’s before, but she did provide one of the race weekend’s snapshot moments when she won the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in record time (1:09:46) in 2012, when it served as the USA Half Marathon Championships.

Right on schedule

The buildup to Shane Bauer’s first official year in charge of Minnesota’s oldest marathon has gone smoothly. Grandma’s is celebrating its 40th birthday Saturday, and with the milestone comes a massive number of participants across three races.

There are 9,601 registered for the marathon, with a record 9,576 slated to run the 26th Bjorklund. And 2,237 are entered for Friday’s 23rd William A. Irvin 5K, which will break in a new course. It will start and finish near the ore boat on Harbor Drive, but rather than utilizing Railroad Street primarily, the new route also incorporates the Lakewalk, crossing underneath the Aerial Lift Bridge and continuing alongside the Minnesota Slip toward the bow of the Irvin.

Last year’s men’s marathon champ, Elisha Barno of Kenya, will try to defend his crown Saturday. The 2015 women’s winner, Jane Kibii, also of Kenya, is not entered, though the course record-holder, Kenya’s Sarah Kiptoo, is.

Elite-runner withdrawals are nothing new at Grandma’s, or any race, for that matter. Training stalls, injuries occur and visa issues arise. One such withdrawal, though, that of wheelchair star Tatyana McFadden, was a bit of a blow. McFadden won last June and was set to return before being summoned to L.A. to be refit for a custom-made wheelchair by BMW.

With more than 21,000 athletes set to descend on Duluth this week, Bauer, Jon Carlson’s successor as executive director, said everything is right on schedule. That doesn’t mean it’s all thumb-twiddling and idle conversation at marathon headquarters on Canal Park Drive.

“We joke because you step into the office and it’s immediately noticeable that we’re on marathon week,” Bauer said. “It’s crazy. I mean it’s fun, it’s exciting, but it’s just a totally different atmosphere once you get this close.”

Awards

2016 Grandma’s Marathon award recipients:

-- Tami Tanski Sherman is the first Scott A. Keenan Founder’s Award recipient, which recognizes an individual who “embodies the history, vision and spirit of Grandma’s Marathon through their chosen area of contribution.” Tanski Sherman has assisted both Grandma’s Marathon and the Fitger’s 5K for 24 years, and she oversees one of the marathon’s largest water stations.

-- News Tribune photographer Bob King is being recognized with the Marsh Nelson Media Award.

-- Former Duluth mayor Don Ness and state senator Roger Reinert are the Rudy Perpich Public Service Award recipients.

-- The Hall of Fame Class of 2016 includes Erik Nelson, Joe Hietala and Kraig Rudstrom, annual mainstays near the finish line.

-- Wally and Ellen Johnson, who, on their own accord, clear the marathon course of clothing discarded by runners and wash and donate it to local thrift shops, are the Don Fennessy Volunteers of the Year.

-- Kathy Bauer is the recipient of the Verizon Wireless Award of Excellence. Bauer recently retired after 27 years with Verizon. She was with the company since the start of Verizon’s partnership with Grandma’s in 1992.

-- Brian Larsen, one of the founders of Grandma’s who has done just about everything in his 40 years’ involvement with the event, is the Ron Daws Ambassador Award winner.

What will Mother Nature do?

The early forecast from the National Weather Service in Duluth calls for a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms after 8 a.m. Saturday, with a high near 75.

After a spate of warmth nearly thwarted the race’s cool-weather reputation, conditions have been favorable in recent years. That includes 2015 when the forecast leading up to race day had the chance for storms, some serious, as high as 90 percent. Hot weather, excessive humidity and a headwind also were predicted. The ugliness hardly materialized. Minus a heavy downpour 20 minutes before the marathon’s start, it turned into an excellent day for a run, with a starting-time temperature of 56 degrees, intermittent showers and relative calm throughout.

That made it five straight years of textbook running weather following a stretch from 2006-10 when Mother Nature forgot that Duluth in June is supposed to be cool.

Briefly

Speaking of Carlson, he’s not very good at retirement. Carlson frequently could be found in recent weeks at the Grandma’s office with three laptops open and humming as he tackles his role as interim race director, which he returned to fill in the spring.

-- There are 1,079 signed up for the Great Grandma’s Challenge - running the 5K on Friday night and either the marathon or half-marathon Saturday morning.

-- Duo racing will make its Grandma’s debut Saturday when Scott Miles pushes Michael Sample, who was born with hydrocephalus, leaving him unable to walk independently. Sample will be in a wheelchair pushed by Miles.

-- Registration for the Whipper Snapper Races on Friday at Bayfront Festival Park starts at noon. Children, ages 4-14, can register for free for age-group races that start at 2 p.m.

-- The Duluth Transit Authority is providing more than 30 buses for shuttle Saturday, continuing a relationship that stretches back decades. According to a DTA news release:

“All DTA buses will be utilized at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC) boarding site located on Railroad Street. Runners in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon can board DTA buses at that location between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m. Runners in Grandma’s Marathon can board DTA buses at that location between 5:45 and 6:15 a.m. All passengers must have their official race number visible to board the shuttle buses.

“Any runner participating in either the half-or-full marathon can ride the DTA Public Transit System for free using their race numbers. This includes the Port Town Trolley.”

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