DULUTH – Grandma’s Marathon is calling off its races in June because of the COVID-19 pandemic, canceling a weekend of events that draws thousands of visitors to the city each year.
Race organizers ruled out the idea of postponing the races because of the enormous challenge of planning and preparing for the event.
“It is not possible to reallocate necessary community resources to a later date, particularly with the growing uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shane Bauer, the marathon’s executive director, said in a news release.
It is the first time organizers canceled the race in its 44-year history.
Marathon weekend was scheduled to kick off with a 5K on June 19 and the full and half-marathons on June 20. It was expected to bring more than 20,000 participants to town — a boost of summer traffic that reliably fills restaurants, hotels and local attractions.
“We understand this is going to have a big impact on the community,” said Mandi Peterson, the marathon’s marketing director. “And it’s not just Duluth — this affects hotels an hour away and all the way up the North Shore.”
The event generated an estimated $20.6 million of economic activity in 2019, according to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota. The cancellation will cost the city alone upward of $10 million in lost revenue, according to Visit Duluth, a tourism-focused nonprofit organization.
“This is one of the top 15 marathons in the country, but it’s the only one that takes place in a smaller, nonmetropolitan area,” Peterson said. “It’s not like a Boston or New York City. This is Duluth, Minnesota.”
The scenic 26.2-mile race, which starts in Two Harbors, began in 1977 with about 150 runners and got its name from the first major sponsor, Grandma’s Saloon & Deli. Now runners from every state and from dozens of countries participate every year.
“There just is something special about Grandma’s. Just the way the community just envelops it and takes so much pride in it,” said Dick Beardsley, a Minnesota running legend whose marathon course record set in 1981 (2:09:37) stood for 33 years. He last ran the marathon in 2006 and continues to officially call the race as a radio announcer.
Organizers said registrants will not receive refunds because “a significant portion of our expenditures have already occurred and are irreversible.” Entry fees have been converted to donations to the nonprofit, which can be claimed as a tax write-off, “in order to preserve our ability to continue to provide the Grandma’s Marathon experience to the running community for years to come.”
Those who signed up to run will be offered a virtual race option and a 20% discount on 2021 races, which are scheduled for June 18-19.
Bauer said the marathon, which has a budget of just over $3 million, will lose more than $2.1 million in forfeited revenue and sunk costs. To offer more of a discount for next year’s 45th anniversary event would possibly jeopardize its viability.
“We have that tagline ‘world-class event, small-town charm’ for a reason,” he said. “All the great things about it are the things that are going to bite us now.”
Twin Cities Marathon organizers said Tuesday they are not planning to cancel their October race but continue to monitor guidelines from public health officials.
For the past three years, Esther Banaian, 25, has trekked up to Duluth from St. Paul each June to run in the race and cheer on friends. This year, she has been fundraising for the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, which supports rare cancer research and treatment in honor of late Minnesota runner Gabriele Grunewald.
“I was sort of expecting a cancellation at this point,” Banaian said. “I’ve been making contingency plans. I’m still going to run 26 miles this summer either way.”
She plans to continue training with her roommate and complete Grandma’s virtual marathon, earning her race T-shirt and medal. Banaian, who ran competitively for the College of St. Benedict, joked that she feels some relief now that the pressure to earn a good time is off.
“But a summer without a weekend in Duluth would also for sure be sad,” she said, adding that she would like to make a trip north with friends in later months to carry on the group’s traditions and frequent their favorite restaurants and breweries.
Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurant Company, said he hopes many tourists decide to do just that. With five businesses in Canal Park, including the headline race’s namesake, the loss of Duluth’s “iconic event” will only exacerbate the havoc the coronavirus is wreaking on the hospitality industry.
Daugherty has not missed a marathon weekend since he worked the first one as a teenager. He has seen races take place in thunderstorms, heat waves and cold snaps that are far too frigid for a typical late June. Once a windstorm ripped up tents and broke windows in Canal Park, he said — but still Grandma’s Marathon went on.
“Having been through all the extremes that I’ve been through, I just couldn’t imagine what could be thrown at it that hadn’t already,” Daugherty said.
But for the first time in 44 years, he faces a June with no smiling runners or sign-holding spectators filling the streets outside his Duluth restaurants.
Staff writer Bob Timmons contributed to this report.