– After four decades, Minnesota’s oldest marathon is holding its own among America’s 26.2-mile races.

Grandma’s Marathon ranks No. 11 in size in the United States as the 41st edition gets underway at 7:45 a.m. Saturday near Two Harbors. It’s easily the country’s largest small city marathon with a race-record 7,522 finishers in 2016.

“Road racing trends have been going the other way recently, but we’ve been working very hard to grow,” Shane Bauer, 41, in his third year as Grandma’s Marathon executive director, said recently. “Last year, our 40th, we far exceeded our entry expectations. We were almost blown away by the response we got.

“This race has always promoted itself as having the perfect recipe — a welcoming town, the North Shore in June, and a race staff that is as good as any.”

Running USA’s 2016 annual report noted the number of road races finishers in the United States declined for a third straight year. Marathon numbers remained flat, meaning no change.

Grandma’s Marathon had 9,601 entries a year ago (just shy of the race record of 9,888 in 2008). Road races, however, are ranked by the number of timed finishers. Despite muggy conditions in 2016, Grandma’s had its most finishers to rank just two spots behind the Minneapolis-to-St. Paul Twin Cities Marathon (8,556).

There are 8,740 Grandma’s entries this year, the second-most since 2008. And the accompanying 27th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, also being run Saturday, has 8,890 entries. Because of space limitations at the start and finish lines for both races, Bauer said that Grandma’s Marathon will have an ultimate entry cap of 10,000 and 9,000 in the half marathon. The two-race annual budget is about $2.8 million.

Greg Haapala, employed by the Twin Cities Marathon from 2012 to 2016, became the Grandma’s Marathon race director, under Bauer, last October.

Kara Goucher is home

The fans were out to greet homegrown superstar Kara Goucher on Friday afternoon at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. More than 600 folks were in standing-room-only-mode as the two-time U.S. Olympian was a guest speaker during the marathon expo.

Goucher, 38, born in New York and raised in Duluth, is in Saturday’s Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, racing for the first time since the U.S. Olympic Trials in the women’s marathon, Feb. 13, 2016, where she was fourth, one spot from making the team. She holds the Bjorklund Half Marathon women’s record of 1 hour, 9 minutes, 45 seconds, set in 2012.

“That was the most meaningful race of my career, coming home as a professional runner,” said Goucher, now of Boulder, Colo. “Everything was special that day.”

She entered the half marathon nine weeks ago, then suffered a hamstring injury, which followed knee surgery.

I’m not here to win. This is a starting point,” said Goucher, a Duluth East High School graduate, in town with husband, Adam, and six-year-old son, Colt.

Mile markers ...

• Saturday weather projections are for morning temperatures in the high 50s, partly cloudy skies, about 55 percent humidity and west-southwest headwinds of 10-15 mph.

• Kenyan Macdonard Ondara, 28, likes warm weather and said at a Friday news conference, although somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “If the weather is good, I will win.”

Ondara, who trains in Santa Fe, N.M., won the Bjorklund Half Marathon in 2016 and is in the marathon today, with a previous best 2:13:23. Elisha Barno, 31, of Kenya will attempt to set Grandma’s Marathon history with a third straight men’s title. He was first last year in 2:11:26 and won the 2017 Los Angeles Marathon on March 19 in 2:11:53.

• Former Grandma’s Marathon champion Jane Kibii, 32, of Kenya is favored in the women’s field Saturday. She won in 2:32:06 in 2015 and won the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon in a personal-best 2:30:01. Kiibi, who has lived in Auburn, Calif., the past seven years and is a mother of a four-year-old daughter, was second in the 2017 Los Angeles Marathon.

• Hellen Jepkurgat, 36, of Kenya won the 2017 Los Angeles Marathon women’s title in 2:34:23, and is a challenger Saturday.

• Amanda McGrory, 31, of Savoy, Ill., is seeking an eighth Grandma’s Marathon women’s wheelchair title. James Senbeta, 29, of Savoy, is the defending men’s wheelchair winner.

41st Grandma’s Marathon

When: Saturday, 7:45 a.m.

Where: Two Harbors to Duluth

What: America’s 11th-largest 26.2-mile race

Entrants: 8,740

Prize money: $100,000 ($10,000 to winners)

Course records: men, 2:09:06, Dominic Ondoro, Kenya, 2014; women, 2:26:32, Sarah Kiptoo, Kenya, 2013.

Economic impact: $10 million

 

27th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon

When: Saturday, 6:15 a.m.

Where: Talmadge River to Duluth

What: America’s 44th largest 13.1-mile race

Entrants: 8,890

Prize money: $26,100 ($3,000 to winners)

Course records: Men, 1:01:22, Meb Keflezighi, USA, 2013; Women, 1:09:46, Kara Goucher, USA, 2012