It wouldn't be Grandma's Marathon without loyal trio

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2013 - 11:30 AM

For the 37th year in a row, their calendars will say the same thing: Busy, gone running.

 

Until he landed in the emergency room last June, Joe Johnson had run every day for 21 years. A mystery virus interrupted that streak, but he refused to allow it to end another one.

Johnson left the hospital, drove to Duluth from his home in Menominee, Mich., and ran in his 36th consecutive Grandma’s Marathon. He was promptly readmitted to the hospital for four days, but he had retained his membership in the three-man club that has made the run from Two Harbors to Canal Park every year.

“My rules are, nobody is allowed to get married or die on this weekend,” Johnson said. “I was sicker than heck, but I wasn’t going to miss Grandma’s.”

Johnson, Jim Nowak and John Naslund raced those 26.2 miles for the first time in 1977, when Canal Park was largely an industrial area that attracted more rats than people. None could picture what they will see Saturday. More than 15,000 runners from 40 countries and all 50 states will flood Duluth for Grandma’s Marathon and the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, with 6,000 volunteers and thick crowds of spectators lining what was once a quiet, lonely course.

Last Friday, Johnson, 63, went to the emergency room again after tripping on a log during a training run. Though he was idled for a few days — and is dealing with a nerve injury to his foot — he plans to hobble his way through. Naslund, 63, is well-prepared after running the Minneapolis Marathon on June 2, marking his 40th consecutive year of running at least two marathons.

Nowak, 62, swore he would never go the distance again after getting sick in the heat at the first Grandma’s. Years later, when his pregnant wife’s due date fell on race day, he was plotting ways to avoid missing one blessed event for another one.

“My son was born early, but I had planned in my head that I would drive up at midnight, then jump in the car and drive back right afterward,” said Nowak, a Duluth native who now lives in Reedsburg, Wis. “It just became a lifelong thing. You put that day away, and nothing’s going to interfere with it.”

In 36 previous editions of Grandma’s Marathon, there have been 175,626 finishers, with Nowak, Naslund and Johnson the only ones to race every year. Dubbed “The Iron Three,” the trio were inducted into the Grandma’s Marathon Hall of Fame in 2002, a year after they and the race hit the 25-year mark.

Nowak, a retired teacher, and Naslund, a stockbroker who lives in Bloomington, were college track teammates at Minnesota Duluth in the early 1970s. They were members of the North Shore Striders track club, where they came to know the men who founded the race along their scenic training route.

Naslund, a native of Two Harbors, was a pole vaulter at UMD who took up running in 1972 to get in shape; he tackled the first Grandma’s after running the Boston Marathon in 1974. Nowak had tried one marathon and wanted no part of another, but friends persuaded him to enter the hometown race his club was launching. Johnson, who began running in 1970, drove over from Michigan with some pals who thought it sounded like fun.

They were among 150 people who paid $3 each to run. Naslund finished fifth — the best finish of any of the Iron Three — in the inaugural Grandma’s, which all of them remembered for its 11 a.m. start on a hot day.

All three men said their families willingly honor the marathon’s sacred status on their summer calendars. Some of Johnson and Naslund’s favorite editions of the race are the ones they have run with their children, with Naslund’s wife also joining him for several years.

“Now she’s wondering how long I’m going to keep this going,” said Naslund, who has run more than 150 marathons, including several in Boston and New York. “At this point, you think, ‘What would stop me?’ If someone has a funeral in the morning, I’m not going to get there.”

By the 10th year of the marathon, the men said, race organizers were recognizing the diehards. At that point, Naslund recalled, there were between 10 and 15 people who had run them all. The number gradually dwindled as other streaks were ended by injuries or family obligations.

Nowak remembered that back then, he hoped he could make it through the first 20 Grandma’s Marathons. His new target is 50. He will be 75 when that race is held in 2026, but he remains a man obsessed. His scariest dreams are of going to the wrong city for the start of the race, and he uses three alarm clocks to make sure he awakens on time.

“One year I stayed overnight with my dad at his assisted-living facility and got locked in the night before the race,” he said. “They didn’t unlock the doors until 7 in the morning. I found a back way out, but I was ready to break a window.”

The trio have suggested that the race create a new award: a belt buckle for those who reach 1,000 Grandma’s Marathon miles. Not that they need any extra incentive to keep returning. Naslund said he plans to continue running Grandma’s as long as he is able, while Johnson — who has his eye on the 40-year mark — already has proved the lengths to which he is willing to go to get to the start line.

“If I have to walk part of it, I will,” he said. “We always have such an awesome time. I feel more at home there than anywhere.”

  • related content

  • Duluth police boost security for Saturday's Grandma's Marathon

    Friday June 21, 2013

    Duluth police are boosting security for Saturday's Grandma's Marathon, following the Boston Marathon bombing in April.

  • Video: Longtime marathoner says Grandma's is his favorite

    Thursday June 20, 2013

    John Naslund, who has run in all 36 Grandma's Marathons and will do his 37th on Saturday, talks about...

  • Chart: Grandma's Marathon information

    Thursday June 20, 2013

    37th GRANDMA’S MARATHONWhen, where: Saturday, Two Harbors to Duluth.Races: Marathon, 7:45 a.m.; USA half-marathon championships, 6:15 (men) and 6:25 (women); Garry...

  • John Naslund, now 63, was a pole vaulter at Minnesota Duluth who took up running in 1972 to get in shape. He tackled the first Grandma’s after running the Boston Marathon in 1974.

  • John Naslund, a native of Two Harbors who now lives in Bloomington, displayed some of his Grandma’s medals.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Kansas City 1 Top 3rd Inning
San Francisco 0
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Atlanta
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Cleveland
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Washington 10/27/14 7:30 PM
Dallas
New Orleans 10/30/14 7:25 PM
Carolina
Dallas 86 4th Qtr
Orlando 66
New York 46 3rd Qtr
Toronto 38
San Antonio 29 2nd Qtr 3:37
Houston 41
Miami 31 2nd Qtr 8:00
Memphis 30
Minnesota 54 2nd Qtr 4:48
Chicago 52
Phoenix 8:00 PM
Utah
Sacramento 9:00 PM
LA Lakers
Denver 9:30 PM
Golden State
Portland 9:30 PM
LA Clippers
Dallas 2 2nd Prd 3:15
New Jersey 1
Tampa Bay 1 2nd Prd
Winnipeg 0
Vancouver 8:00 PM
Colorado
Carolina 8:30 PM
Edmonton
Columbus 9:00 PM
Anaheim
Connecticut 21 FINAL
(18) East Carolina 31
Miami-Florida 30 FINAL
Virginia Tech 6
So Florida 3 3rd Qtr
Cincinnati 20
Troy 3 2nd Qtr 0:34
South Alabama 10
BYU 8:00 PM
Boise State
(6) Oregon 9:00 PM
California
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rice
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Arkansas
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Wisconsin
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
SMU
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
Virginia
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Navy
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Toledo
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Stanford
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Missouri
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
UCF
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
Tennessee
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Washington
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Hawaii
(2) Florida State 10/30/14 6:30 PM
Louisville
Troy 10/30/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
Cincinnati 10/31/14 7:00 PM
Tulane
Tulsa 10/31/14 7:00 PM
Memphis
Purdue 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
(17) Oklahoma 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Iowa State
Oklahoma State 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
(10) TCU 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(22) West Virginia
Texas 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Texas Tech
Northwestern 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Iowa
Maryland 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Penn State
Houston 1 1st Half 15:00
Chicago 0
Montreal 23 13:37
Ottawa 10
Saskatchewan 8:30 PM
Calgary
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Winnipeg
Hamilton 10/31/14 6:30 PM
Ottawa
Winnipeg 11/1/14 3:00 PM
Calgary
Brt Columbia 11/1/14 6:00 PM
Edmonton
Toronto 11/2/14 11:00 AM
Montreal

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who wins and loses in football this weekend?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close