Getting mileage out of marathons

  • Article by: CHRIS MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • May 21, 2009 - 2:24 PM

The calendar of marathons in Minnesota never has been crowded.

Until now.

Two first-time marathons popped up this month, giving local distance runners new options.

And that means Duluth's venerable Grandma's Marathon, already hurt by the economy, is taking a double hit and probably won't reach its limit for the first time in 15 years.

"You have to look at the overall picture," Grandma's executive director Scott Keenan said. "There are over 350 marathons now in the United States, and everyone has one in their own back yard. More people are running and more people are signing up for races, and eventually that's good for all of us."

Stillwater's first marathon is next Sunday, and the inaugural Minneapolis Marathon is May 31.

Grandma's, in its 33rd year, runs June 20. The 28th Twin Cities Marathon, the state's largest, is Oct. 4.

"It seems there are new people entering marathons all the time," said veteran runner Gloria Jansen of White Bear Lake. "Sometimes, it's just someone who wants to say, 'I ran a marathon in my life.' Other times, they'll get hooked and run a lot more marathons."

Jansen's next marathon will be her 50th. A five-time USA Track and Field age-group runner of the year, she has traveled to London, Paris and Hawaii to run marathons. Jansen used to be on the board of the Twin Cities Marathon and had her personal best of 2 hours, 58 minutes, 19 seconds at the 1996 Grandma's Marathon when she was 49.

"People seem to like different things about different marathons. Could be the course, the weather, the water stops, something to eat at the finish line, the shirts ... sometimes you like to travel for the whole experience, too," she said. "The races in your area are nice because you can go run, you don't have to get a hotel room ...

"But people will always go back to Duluth ... it's the perfect size town to put on a race like that, where the whole focus of the city that weekend is on the race."

Stillwater starts up

Stillwater's marathon was added to a race card that includes a 20-miler, a half-marathon and a 12-kilometer run.

"But planning those is the equivalent of playing in a sandbox compared to a marathon," said Dave Eckberg, president of St. Croix Events. "It has been an amazing animal."

Eckberg, who also runs Stillwater's Lumberjack Festival, relied on advice from other marathon organizers.

"We've had many conversations with our friends at Twin Cities Marathon asking them, 'Hey, what's going to kill us? What do we need to look out for?'" he said.

Twin Cities Marathon executive director Virginia Achman and Keenan work closely on common issues for their races, and she agrees new marathons "speak highly of the running community we have in Minnesota."

"Any event that calls us asking for advice, we are very open to that," Achman said.

"People are eager to run marathons all over the country, and we support that, too -- because they are going to find out what great races they have in their own back yards."

A running mecca

There are 10 marathons in Minnesota (if you count the Fargo Marathon, which dips into Moorhead), including two trail marathons. The Med City Marathon in Rochester is also next Sunday, as is the Madison (Wis.) Marathon.

Grandma's Marathon and the Twin Cities Marathon are the big dogs. Grandma's had a record 9,904 registered runners last year, and Twin Cities caps its field at 11,000. Grandma's has a half-marathon (6,600 runners) and a 5-kilometer race the night before (1,500 runners); Twin Cities has a 10-mile race (6,500) and 5K (2,500).

Minnesota's other marathons are small-field citizen races, offering little or no prize money.

Based on number of finishers, Twin Cities is the 10th-largest marathon in America and Grandma's is the 11th. The world's largest is the New York City Marathon, which had 37,790 finishers last year. An estimated 420,000 people ran marathons in the United States last year.

Grandma's Marathon is at 85 percent capacity, with registration closing in two weeks. The Twin Cities Marathon is 75 percent full but is expected to sell out well before October.

The Minneapolis option

Minneapolis Marathon organizers estimate their field at 1,500, many of whom might have run Grandma's.

"A lot of people don't want to pay the price to go up there," race director Caleb Olsen said. "There are a lot of people in Minneapolis who do marathons, and if there wasn't one here, they would go up to Duluth."

Minneapolis expects 2,500 in the half-marathon and 1,000 in a 10-kilometer race. The Team Ortho Foundation is sponsoring the races.

"I've been fascinated by the growth of the movement of people downtown," Team Ortho executive director John Larson said. "I owned a condo in 1990 in Minneapolis and always wondered why people didn't live downtown. When it finally happened, I thought, 'We need to have a blast of activity. We're doing races on Lake Harriet, but now we need to do stuff downtown.' That's how this all started."

The downtown half-marathon last year was a trial run for Team Ortho. Since then, Larson and his staff have scouted other marathons and listened to runners. A Facebook contest narrowed 700 entries down to 26 "inspirational quotes" that will be on signs at half-mile positions on the course. And Larson vows there will be more than enough food and water for runners.

"There's no problem for the [marathon] course holding 1,500. ... In terms of capacity, it would hold substantially more than that. And we'd definitely like it to grow. Right now, we're just focused on making it the best success this year, then listening to feedback."

Grandma's reacts

Grandma's Marathon has a June 1 registration deadline, and there were 8,102 registered by Friday for a field soft-capped at 9,500.

"Marathons are not recession-proof," said Keenan, whose race sold out last year by April 23. "Grandma's is a destination marathon. We had runners from all 50 states and 44 countries last year. If there's a 10 percent unemployment rate, and we all know what the economy is like, people are less likely to fly in."

Hotels in Duluth raise their rates for Grandma's weekend, and most require a two-night stay. Many hotels are charging between $250 and $350 per night, Twin Ports college dorm rooms are also expensive, and the housing situation has been singled out by some runners as a deal-breaker.

In addition to economic issues, Keenan said registration has been adversely affected by last year's headset ban (now lifted), recent hot weather on race days and other marathons.

"Not just the new ones down there, but also marathons like Fargo [May 9]," Keenan said. "We realize there is some competition. We're going to do some new marketing. We'll start registration on July 13 instead of the third week of January, have an early-bird $10 discount and numerous hospitality and hotel discounts to anyone who registers between July 13 and Labor Day.

"The No. 1 business principle is that you need to have a good value. We've had discussions with hotels, and the hospitality industry and tourist industry, and we're coming up with solutions."

Grandma's always has gotten high grades for its attention to the runners and its ability to channel runner feedback into improvements.

"It's a learning process," said Keenan, who has guided the race since it started in 1977. "No one has it down pat. Everyone's goal should be to put on a safe race, and the bar keeps rising.

"In the long term, the more people that are getting into the sport, the more races there are, the better. We're getting more people involved, and eventually they are going to come to Grandma's."

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