Grandma’s Marathon Course Preview
Another helpful marathon course preview from Star Blackford from the CLIF Bar Pace Team!
The CLIF Bar Pace Team loves running the Grandma’s Marathon every year! It is a phenomenal event, marked by first-class volunteers, a unique and fast course, and a host city that manages to make every runner feel like a hero. For the past two years, we’ve also paced the Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon and wanted to share our insider tips on the course, the weather and the town.
Wherever you stay in Duluth (or the Lake Superior area), get ready to be treated like royalty. Whether you’re in an older hotel, a college dorm or the race host hotels, just “looking” like a runner is enough to get you star treatment. The Expo is a real treat as well – much larger than many expect for this race, and lots of quality vendors. And, since Grandma’s is a Saturday race, they offer very late packet pickup – until 11 o’clock at night! We personally recommend a relaxed evening meal and a solid night’s sleep, but it’s a great option to have if you should need it.
As far as that relaxed evening meal goes, look no further than Michaelina’s All-You-Can-Eat spaghetti feed, located right outside the main Expo hall. A Grandma’s tradition, it’s just another example of how Grandma’s goes out of its way to accommodate as many participants as possible: the pasta feed runs from 11 am through 9 pm, allowing you to do your carbo-loading as early or late as you prefer. A true “runners-hub,” there is always someone to eat with, talk to or share strategy with.
The big day starts early, so try to get as much rest as you can. Yes, the buses out to the starting area leave at the crack of dawn (or perhaps earlier), but remember, it takes a lot of time to safely move 7,000 people from downtown Duluth to the start at Two Harbors. Once you’re there, you’ll be sitting in a large parking lot or grassy area for an hour or two. It’s not a bad idea to invest in an inexpensive tarp or a couple of garbage bags to sit on; also make sure you have plenty of throwaway clothes in the event it’s a little cooler or rainy. Water and Powerade are usually available at the start, and the fun music pumping through the crowd will have you psyched up and ready for your big run.
Doing the half marathon instead? Same story, different starting point. But always, always be sure you’re on the correct bus.
At last, it’s time for the start! Keeping with the theme of unique and special, Grandma’s kicks off its marathon with none other than the theme song from “Chariots of Fire,” a truly special moment each year. As you head out on the gently rolling hills, the sounds of cheering crowds and cowbells will quickly drown out that special moment and send you on your way.
The first five miles will take you out of Two Harbors and through the former fishing villages in Larsmont and near Knife River. You’ll be running on tree-lined Highway 61, with small groups of spectators from time to time. Don’t be discouraged by the rolling hills! While the Grandma’s course does have some “roll” throughout, it is a fast course when the weather is right, working different muscle groups through the undulations. Early in the race, settle in with your pace leader, and let them take the lead in easing you up and down those hills. Always remember to rest, relax and recover your breath on even the smallest downhill – let them work for you! And for a chuckle, ask if anyone wants to stop at Russ Kendall’s Smoked Fish Shop for a snack at mile 6 – if your pace leader doesn’t beat you to it!
Mile 9 marks your first opportunity to see loved ones and spectators that aren’t volunteering, though it can be tough to secure parking. Homestead Road connects to Highway 61, which means that spectators do have access to that area of the course. Again, be warned: parking is very limited, so even if your spectators and crew can get there, they might not necessarily be able to park nearby. Nevertheless, it’s a great “pick-up” zone as you approach double-digit mileage, so soak up enough energy to carry you to the halfway mark!
Just past mile 9 is another special surprise; a gradual, flowing downhill that lasts a little over a mile. It’s nothing staggering to look at, but it is a nice chance to shake out your arms and relax into the next section of your race. You’ll have a little bit of payback with a gradual climb out of mile 10, but with only 5K to the halfway point (and another spectator opportunity!), you’ll be feeling strong and focused!
When you reach the halfway point, you’ll get a spectator pick-me-up as well as a treat from the course: the next four miles are some of the nicest terrain of the course, with either gradual downhills or pure flats. That doesn’t mean you won’t climb at all, but it’s the perfect placement of some easier miles, allowing you to exert as little energy as possible as you store up for those last challenging miles. The first half is behind you and pick up the second half. Start your mental preparations for the tougher miles ahead, and stick close to your pace leader as they coach you through the middle miles.
A couple of things to remember, though! Since the half marathon has now started, there will be TWO sets of mile marker balloons. Full marathoners, follow the yellow balloons for your splits, and remember that those are the ones your pace leaders are using as well. Half marathoners, you’ll be counting on those blue balloons to take you home. Being able to see the mile markers so clearly is one of our favorite things about Grandma’s – but it can also be defeating when they seem soooooo far away!
Speaking of so far away … it’s right about this time that you’re going to be able to see the famous aerial lift bridge in Canal Park! That’s right, from 10 long miles away, you’ll be able to see your finish line. Try not to look into the distance from your left, but keep your eyes ahead. There’s also a beautiful gazebo on a long downhill; on a sunny day, there’s no place better to be than Duluth in June!
From mile 17, you’ll do some very gradual climbing (that might feel a little more than gradual after 17 miles) all the way until the infamous Lemon Drop Hill. But first – take your CLIF Shot gel! Our team will be out for you right around mile 17, handing out CLIF Shot gels and fun to keep you going strong. You’ve also got a fun change of scenery coming up, as you make your first true “turn” of the race around mile 19, entering the Lakeside neighborhood via London Road. Try to distract your legs and lungs by taking in the neighborhood, the gorgeous homes and the spectators. You’ve got flat to gently climbing road for the next three miles, all the way to Lemon Drop Hill, but the good news is that spectators are picking up and you’re in a more populated area now. While Lake Superior offers superb scenery, crowds and music (and your pace leader) can do a lot for you once you head past the 20 mile mark – and beyond.
Once you hear the sound of the bagpipes, you’ll know for sure you’re there: the dreaded Lemon Drop Hill. It is indeed steep, but it’s short and your pace leader has prepared you well. You are not going to let it break you, and you’re getting to the top of it with your leader and your group. Focus on the sound of the bagpipes – not the hill – and push. You’ve worked to be here, and today, you will own Lemon Drop. Another reason to look good and tough? This is one of the Clif Bar Pace Team’s favorite photo spots – you just might be on our next banner!
With Lemon Drop done just past mile 22, you’ll get to relax down a gentle downhill for about a mile and a half until your next big turn: Superior Street! Be warned, however, that there’s been a side street around this point with some slightly rough footing in years past; it’s brief, but it can be hard on aching feet. Again, lock in on your pace leader’s voice and coaching, and steal yourself away from the growing fatigue. Once you make that turn onto Superior Street, the spectators, bands, college students and belly dancers will single-handedly carry you to the mile 25 marker at the base of Superior. Whether you’re passing by the raucous party at Fitgers, grabbing a cold sponge by the Holiday Inn or catching a quick glimpse of the belly dancers, the noise and excitement will push you on your way. Soon enough, you’ll be approaching the bottom of Superior Street, with the famous round Radisson to your right (don’t you dare quit now!), and a turn to your left just past the mile 25 marker taking you to that finish line.
But the most important advice we can give you is this: it’s not an easy finish, no it’s not. Grandma’s makes you work a little here at the end, and we want to make sure you’re fully prepared. As you turn left to cross over the highway and head to the DECC, there is a hill. It is a small hill, a hill you’ll probably walk on your way to the Expo or over the weekend before the race. But after 25 miles, it looks (and feels) like a mountain. This is your last challenge; a “bull in a china shop” moment. It doesn’t have to be pretty, and it doesn’t have to be graceful. But you do need to run up that hill. Know that it’s coming, and be prepared to give it all that you’ve got left in you.
From there, you’ll be winding through Canal Park and around the William A. Irwin. No matter how long that mile seems, remind yourself: it is only a mile. After all you’ve done, and all you’ve run today, you have less than a mile left. The cheers of the crowds and the spectators will be picking up, and you’ll have the familiar shops and restaurants of Canal Park all around you. Before you know it, you’re at that last balloon – finally! – and you can see the finish line up ahead. Dig up that very last little bit of energy, and do your best to beat your pace leader to the finish line – that’s our favorite part. Congratulations, runners! You’ve just finished Grandma’s Marathon!