Grandma's Marathon Course Report
Grandma’s Marathon: May The Weather Odds be Ever In Your Favor
The older and ‘more established’ a race is, the better the experience a runner can count on. Organizers have logistics down to a science, pomp and circumstance is increased with the number of elites who show up; this feels like an EVENT, you know you are part of something cool as soon as you arrive in Duluth. The town is very proud of this historic race and comes out to support it. Bear in mind that this is Duluth, so you can’t fairly compare the crowd support to that of London or NYC; Duluth is a fraction of the size and a college town in summer to boot.
My only complaint regarding race organization is the start time. 7:45am in the middle of the summer is LATE for a summer marathon that runs hot. Be prepared.
Also be aware: lodging in Duluth is in very short supply and is PRICEY. Hotel prices inflate by up to 400% during race weekend and your reservation may be non-refundable if you don’t make it early enough. I’ve heard good things about the dorms!
This race is a must-do for anyone who appreciates the history of the marathon. It is iconic, one of the oldest in the country, and though it isn’t one of the largest, its respectability factor makes it one of the most desirable. Organization is top-notch, logistics on race day are impeccable and the director is prepared for every possible scenario.
Just one serious downside: Duluth weather is crazy unpredictable in the summer. I strongly advise anyone aiming for a PR to identify at least one b-race (as in ‘B for Backup’) right after registering for Grandma’s. You could have temperatures around 80 with high humidity (2016), a morning storm could roll I overnight and DUMP rain for the duration of the race (2015), you might even see snow (This hasn’t happened in twenty years, but it has happened). You MUST pack for every possibility since you’re in a small town and the expo may run out of whatever you forgot to pack.
To recap: The course is terrific. The organization is top-notch. The town is super-cool. If the weather odds are in your favor, this could be one of the best race experiences imaginable. If it is hot and humid, no breeze, no clouds, and ambient heat from the road, this could be miserable. If you get to the start line and the black flags are flying, be prepared to re-evaluate your commitment to starting. This is why I insist on selecting a b-race in advance. It’s not you, it’s not the race, it’s truly the weather.
Though some have described this course as ‘rolling hills’, I have to disagree. The course is gorgeous and very flat, with the one notable hill (Lemon Drop hill). Its notoriety has more to do with the timing in the race (mile 22) rather than the incline of the hill. (As Adrienne likes to say, “it’s not about the size it’s about the placement”). If you came across Lemon Drop on a training run you probably wouldn’t slow your roll by much. Unless it’s windy that day, natch.
My strongest memory of this race were the yellow balloons flying from every mile marker. For reasons I cannot explain, it made the miles fly by faster, I would get SO EXCITED when I would see the next ones in the distance.
The first 18 miles of the course take you down a northwoods road that often feels very isolated if you are spoiled to larger races like Chicago and NYC. At mile 8, on a clear day, you get your first glimpse of the finish line. Don’t look! Focus on the balloons!
Breathtaking views of the lake, numerous bridges and local spectators line the route for the first two thirds. Mile 19 brings you into the neighborhoods north of Duluth, and eventually leads you to London Road. Make sure you notice the lilacs around mile 21- once you smell them you know you’re nearly home! The crowds get progressively larger and louder the closer you get to the finish line, with the last 3 miles nearly lined on both sides of the street. It all reaches a fever pitch when you wind through Canal Park, making the last turn for the final two tenths of a mile.
I have been told that there are no porta-potties after mile 17. I have no idea if this is still true, but it is something to consider.
Note on executing your race plan: EVERYONE is going to go out too fast. Everyone. The first 5 miles are downhill, then slowly slope to flat. The flat takes everyone by surprise, they will burn out by mile 7. Those who don’t will burn out on the hill at mile 8 or the second upslope at mile 10.5. Miles 12-19 are flat and unremarkable (and pretty! Focus on the pretty! Look for the balloons!) so your mental game needs to be on point. Lock your cage at mile 19, Lester River is where the ‘rollers’ start, BE SURE to slow your roll on the uphill, then take at least 1-2 minutes to recover as you crest, let gravity do the work. Mile 24-the finish is a downslope but feels flat so it’s time to push but be careful not to burn out.