- 3 miles/5K, 13.1 miles/Half Marathon, 26.2 miles/Marathon, Virtual Race
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After being a virtual only event in 2020, Grandma's Marathon returned to Duluth, Minnesota this year and I was so excited to finally check this extremely well-rated race off my bucket list.
I found out I would run Grandma's in October, 2020 (as long as we got through COVID). From the moment I registered, the information from race management was steady, clear, and painted a great picture for what was to come. Early on we knew that, if the race was able to proceed, it would be set at half-capacity and strong COVID protocols would be in place. In spite of what was sure to be a less than normal race experience, it was clear that the race would still live up to its BibRave 100 best in the nation status. In fact, the race did not officially have permits to proceed until about a month before race date, but the regular communication from management made it clear that they were working with local officials extensively and they expected race to move forward as best as possible. When the green light finally arrived, more and more key aspects of the race seemed to fall into place. Events that were initially expected not to take place due to COVID, like the pasta dinner, post race party, etc., were reinstated and it seemed as if we would get to experience a relatively "normal", if not a bit smaller version of Grandma's.
Starting around Christmas, a monthly "Grandma's podcast" was released each month with great history of the race, interviews with important race personalities and locals. Listening to the podcast gives a great sense for the love and energy around this race, and it made me feel almost as if I had already been to Duluth. I highly recommend listening to the episodes to get excited about the race and the community.
I opted to fly all the way into Duluth regional airport (connecting in Minneapolis). While it's slightly more expensive, saving on the high cost of rental car more than made up for the difference and helped me avoid driving several hours alone late at night. I was able to work a full day in Atlanta, get on an evening flight, and get to Duluth by midnight.
Since Duluth is a pretty small town there's not a ton of hotel options but the race does a good job of listing various options on the site. If you want to save some $ you can actually stay in the dorms at the various local universities, although I suspect it's better to have access to a car if you do that. The race offers multiple race day shuttle options from common housing locations around town, including the universities. Much like the convenience of flying into Duluth, I decided to spend a bit more $ and stay at the Fairfield Inn Waterfront (a Marriott property) which is within .5 mile from the finish area, expo, and race day transportation pickups. It was definitely worth the money to be that close to all the action. The hotel included breakfast in the stay and they also gave goodie bags to all the runners staying there. On race morning, they left out coffee and snacks extra early (before the normal breakfast time) for those of us leaving for the race start. Staying there was very comfortable and made everything much less stressful.
I worked from the hotel on Friday and went to the expo Friday afternoon. The expo was larger with more vendors than I expected. The whole weekend I kept having the sense that this was "the biggest small race I had been to." Even though Grandma's is a "small town" race (this year there were less than 3000 marathoners - which is half the norm), everything about the race had a large race feeling. Just very top notch. The expo was nice and spread out, plenty of space between booths, and plenty of walking space; even pre-COVID, expos gave me a bit of anxiety so I really appreciated this. Packet pickup was every easy, taking less than 5 minutes. We received our finisher shirt at the expo but normally you'd get the shirt at the finish line. This was done in an effort to reduce touch points in the race.
I met another BibRave Pro at the expo and we opted to go to the pre-race past dinner (something I normally never do at races). The $14 dinner was a great value, the food was yummy (basic spaghetti, meatballs if you want, tomato sauce, bread, salad), and I was really excited it included Americone Dream for dessert, my favorite Ben & Jerry's flavor.
There are several shuttle bus location options around town. However, I was most excited for the option to take the train to the start. There is a scenic railway that serves as one of the transportation options if you're running the marathon (half marathoners start at the halfway point of the course and cannot take the train). I love trains so this was a no-brainer choice for me. The train starts boarding around 5:30 and leaves at 6. It has limited capacity (~1000 people) so getting there early may be important; since this year the race was half capacity, it did not seem to be an issue. I'm not sure if during a "normal" year it fills up but I'd still recommend getting there by 5:30 to ensure a space in case you really want to ride the train. The train follows the course along the Lake Superior coastline up to the startline at Two Harbours. It's a really comfy, beautiful ride and took about an hour. I think the buses are faster and may allow you the time to sleep in a bit, but who sleeps before a race anyway??
Once off the train, the start area consists of hundreds of port-o-johns. While there were lines, everything moved quickly. Just before 7:45 race start time was the national anthem and a flyover (very cool and unexpected). Rather than a wave start, everyone was funneled into individual lines leading to the start line, and it was a rolling start, i.e. you basically kept walking towards the start line and once you crossed, you started. I like this method because it was pretty low stress and kept the first mile more spread out than a normal start experience.
The course is advertised as flat and fast. In my opinion, it's more like gently rolling hills. The course is actually net downhill, but the rolling hills break everything up nicely. This is my favorite kind of course. The train followed us for a while and blew the whistle periodically to cheer us on. This was really cool in the first few miles especially since this was the quietest part of the course with little spectators.
The first aid station came at mile 3. After that, the aid stations came at least every 2 miles. The stations themselves were very well organized with gatorade, followed by water, followed by self-fill stations (to refill your own bottles if needed), and everything very well-marked. The stations were located on both sides of the road. I also noticed bathrooms and medical at most, if not all, of the stops.
The miles are marked with giant yellow balloons which, since this was a straight line point to point course, you could often see from at least half a mile away. They became really nice motivation markers. The early parts of the course are pretty quiet, except for at the aid stations. As you get closer to Duluth though things start to pick up, with more and more people lining the course, often right in front of their homes. The first of only a few turns in the course comes around mile 22. Shortly after that you cross a digital mat that which triggers personalized videos for you (if you had friends/submit any) to play on a big screen along the course. It was so fun to see friendly faces pop up for me, especially since I had been struggling before that.
From that point, it's pretty much all downhill as you make a few more turns through downtown Duluth, around the expo building, along the waterfront, and into the finish area. The finish line was really fun, and the volunteers were a great help. The finish line food felt a bit sparse, but I heard that was due to COVID, especially since the post-race party was held in a completely different location this year. I stretched for a bit, got my head back on straight, and made it back to my hotel with just a short 0.5 mile walk. It was nice to be able to clean up before heading back out to the post-race festivities.
The medal is really nice, and quite heavy. I really like the shirt; it's a technical v-neck that actually fits well. There was extra race gear you could buy but nothing that really excited me. I ended up buying a shirt from the local Duluth Running Company instead, as well as a cool staff shirt from the bar/restaurant located right at the finish line.
After missing in-person events for a year and half, Grandma's was a great return to the marathon distance for me. I really loved the town, the people, and the whole race experience felt top notch. I'm already working on getting a group of folks from Atlanta to go next year. Please consider putting this race on your must-do list. It sells out every year, so get in early!