DULUTH – Minnesota's oldest marathon returns to the North Shore on Saturday morning with its two most enduring figures ready to run, again.
Jim Nowak, 70, of Cornell, Wis., and John Naslund, 71, of Bloomington, are the only entrants to have started and finished every Grandma's Marathon since the 26.2-mile race began in 1977. The 45th edition reclaims the roads after a virtual year in 2020 because of COVID-19.
While virus concerns have limited the marathon and accompanying 31st Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon to half capacity, each with 4,000 runners, they are likely the two largest events to resume live racing in the United States in 2021.
Nowak and Naslund are eager to be back on the starting line, just south of Two Harbors, where Naslund grew up, and they hope to reach Canal Park, in Duluth, where Nowak grew up.
"Running is part of who I am. I don't go around wearing it on my sleeve, but I want to keep going for as long as possible," said Naslund, a financial advisor for 40 years. "I'm sure it's the same for Jim: We do this because we can."
When 116 runners finished the inaugural Grandma's Marathon, on a warm day, Naslund was fifth in 2 hours, 41 minutes, 17 seconds and Nowak 52nd in 3:32:27. They were former Minnesota Duluth track teammates, fraternity brothers and members of the North Shore Striders, who organized Grandma's Marathon. The two were inducted into the Grandma's Marathon Hall of Fame in 2002.
In all, Naslund figures he's completed 200 races at the marathon distance, or longer, and has trained year-round annually since his first Boston Marathon in 1973. Nowak says he's run about 60 marathons and was inspired to compete in sports by family members, including an uncle, the late Joe Nowak of Duluth, a star ski jumper in the 1950s, who was inducted to the U.S. Ski Jumping Hall of Fame.
"When we started running marathons, in our 20s, a running boom caught hold and we were part of it," said Nowak, a retired high school special education teacher, who still works as a substitute at the elementary and high school level. "I live in the country and run 30-to-40 miles a week, mostly alone. Some days, now, you get up and your body's stiff, and it might be hard just to put on your socks. But because of this streak, you keep going. It's been a journey."
The 2020 Grandma's Marathon, set for June 20, was canceled for in-person racing, although virtual times were submitted and recorded by race officials. Nowak and Naslund went to Duluth on the scheduled date and ran the marathon distance, separately, and not on the exact course because of reconstruction of the French River Bridge, near the 12-mile mark. Both finished the task. Naslund also completed the 39th Twin Cities Marathon, virtually, in October of 2020 and has started and finished every year. Nowak has a marathon best of 2:47 and Naslund 2:28.
So, neither advancing age nor a pandemic has kept them from this point-to-point spring pilgrimage. Summer officially begins Sunday.
Down to the wire
Race officials were to decide May 1 about in-person racing for the 2021 Grandma's Marathon and Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. Fifty days before race day. When the date arrived, a decision was delayed as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz neared an announcement about loosening the state's public health guidelines concerning COVID-19. The news, on May 6, gave outdoor events new life.
"That [announcement] went beyond our expectations. It was such a relief," said Grandma's Marathon executive director Shane Bauer. "Under the circumstances, it was perfect. We couldn't have asked for anything better."
Because of reduced registration revenue, however, Bauer projects a loss of $500,000 this year. He estimates the races broke even in 2020s virtual season. The annual budget is approximately $2.8 million.
Redesigning two races, to allow for remaining virus concerns, has meant considerable work for the 10-member marathon staff and 16-member board of directors. Getting runners to the starting line in smaller numbers, starting the race at intervals waves (rather than all at one time) and keeping the finish-line area clear, as much as possible. In 2019, there were 8,571 entrants in the marathon and 9,237 in the half marathon.
Running for the win
There are just 53 elite runners in the marathon (27 women, 26 men), all but nine, in this typically international event, are from the United States.
Former Grandma's champions Boniface Kongin and Sarah Kiptoo, both from Kenya, have received one dose of a virus vaccine since arriving in the United States in the past two weeks. They'll receive a second dose later in June. Kiptoo, 31, still wears a mask in public, Kongin, 31, does not.
"The virus isn't gone, but it's certainly better than it was last year at this time," said Kongin, the 2019 Grandma's men's winner.
"Coming to the United States, at this time, wasn't a problem, other than having one flight canceled," said Kiptoo, the winner in Duluth in 2013 and 2016. "I wanted to be here because it is my favorite race."
Crowd scientist Marcel Altenburg of England was enlisted by Grandma's Marathon to provide a plan to make the course as safe as possible during competition. Runners are asked to wear masks while being transported to the start, and once finished, but not during the race.
No shots necessary
Grandma's Marathon isn't requiring entrants to be vaccinated, which seems to hold true with nearly all road races this year. Recent data from one study appears to back that reasoning.
A May story in Canadian Running cites a study by the Japanese Association of Athletics Federation which monitored events from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021. There were 1,044 track meets and 74 road races, and 750,389 participants, with only two individuals testing positive for COVID-19 within two weeks of the races they attended.
The world's best-known race, the Boston Marathon, was rescheduled from April 19 to Oct. 11 this year for its 125th running. The majority of other American road races have been canceled, gone virtual or been rescheduled. In-person marathons have been small, including Charlottesville, Va., in April (156 finishers); Kentucky Derby Festival, in April (461); Atlanta, held in Hampton, Ga., in February (535); Lincoln, Neb., in May (726); and Myrtle Beach, S.C., in May (945).