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Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - 1. Grandma's Marathon

If this is Grandma's, it must be Duluth

Six-year-old Nicholas looked seriously at my wife and asked: "Is this your race, Grandma?"

Rose couldn't understand what Nick meant, so he repeated the question: "Is this your race?"

She finally realized that Nick was wondering about Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. The event actually gets its name from a restaurant near the finish line: Grandma's Saloon & Deli, an early sponsor. Wells Fargo Bank and Target now provide more sponsor money, but the name remains part of the mystique of this marathon along Lake Superior's North Shore. With more than 9,000 runners, Grandma's is the 11th largest marathon in the United States, the only one that large not in a major urban center. (Duluth's population is 85,000.)

Rose confessed to Nick that the race was not named after her, nor was she running it. Those duties passed to Grandpa Hal on the eve of my 70th birthday. Grandma's Marathon on June 16 would be my last race as a 69-year-old before moving into a new age group on June 17. It seemed fitting to run the marathon as part of my birthday celebration, but was one marathon enough?

A decade earlier, I had run 6 marathons in 6 weeks to celebrate my 60th birthday. That proved too difficult to repeat, but 7 in 7 months seemed doable. And as long as I was running a total of 183.4 miles, why not do so for a cause? Get people to pledge money per mile. Thus, the idea of running 7 marathons in 7 months to celebrate my 70th birthday and helping to raise $700,000 in funds for 7 separate charities was born.

Grandma's Marathon was the first stop on my 7-7-70 journey. Because I graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, I linked my alma mater's alumni fund with Grandma's Marathon in the same state. When I visited campus en route to Duluth, I learned that classmates and other alumni already had donated or pledged $8,850.

Transport Town

Tucked at the tip of Lake Superior, Duluth is best known as a transport town for iron ore, shoveled from the ground on the Mesabi Range in Northern Minnesota. That ore, transported by ships to steel mills in and around Gary, has been central to the economy of Northwest Indiana, where I live, for most of the past century.

I've been visiting Minnesota since my childhood, and I continue to be drawn to that Land of Lakes, one reason I enrolled at Carleton. When I was a boy on the south side of Chicago, my father used his two-week vacation each year to go fishing at Camp Idlewild north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. To reach that pinnacle of fishing pleasure in the North Woods, we passed through Duluth. I still remember drives north through Wisconsin that seemed to last forever in the era before expressways. My parents often sang an ancient song that began: "Two to Duluth, said the lady to the youth."

One time, I left the hotel where we were staying in that city to walk on Superior Street and encountered two local toughs, who threatened to beat me up if I didn't retreat from their turf. As I told a capacity audience during a lecture I gave the day before this year's Grandma's Marathon, "That was the beginning of my running career."

Duluth seems friendlier today. The marathon begins near Two Harbors on Lake Superior and follows a rolling and winding road along North Shore Drive before emerging on that same Superior Street. Crowds line the sidewalks cheering the runners en route to Canal Park, that contains hotels, a convention center, an ore boat museum, an IMAX theatre and the popular Grandma's Saloon & Deli that gave the marathon its name.

Even if you're not running a marathon, Canal Park is worth a visit. On the morning of the race, most runners take buses to the starting line in Two Harbors. We chose instead riding the scenic railroad that parallels the course. A special train on race day transports runners and spectators to the starting line, then brings the spectators back in time to watch the finish.

Family Affair

Seven in our family took the train. My son-in-law Pete Sandall also was running the marathon. Daughter Laura and Grandma Rose brought three of our grandchildren: Angela, Nicholas and David. By then, Nick was convinced that even if the marathon was not named after his Grandma Rose, it probably should have been.

I started the race in the back row, since I had no intentions of running fast. Somewhat undertrained, I decided to forget about fast times in my seven marathons and simply try to run each one faster than the one before. With 9,000 runners in front of me on a narrow road, it took seven minutes after the gun sounded before I crossed the line. The train remained so its occupants could watch all the runners. I had decided to run the race wearing a cellular phone, so I dialed Laura's cell phone number. She answered quickly: "We can see you." Indeed, there they were waving from the train window. But the train began picking up speed and soon left me to finish the race on my own.

I wasn't the only one running with a cellular phone. As per my instructions, every hour Rose or Laura would call to check on my progress. One time when the phone rang, a woman running near me said, "Is that my phone or yours?"

My progress was slow, given the fact that my goal was mainly to finish the marathon, not finish it fast. Coming past the half-marathon point at 13 miles and checking my watch, it occurred to me that I used to run full marathons that fast! But running Grandma's Marathon was not about setting Personal Records; it was more about finishing comfortably enough so I could claim the cash contributed in my behalf for the Carleton College Alumni Fund and continue my journey in the six remaining marathons between now and January.

My finishing time was just under six hours: 5:58:30. Rose was waiting at the finish line to take a photo of me with a medal around my neck, proof that I had gone the full 26 miles. I planned to put it on a post card to be mailed to my classmates from Carleton to remind them to fulfill their pledges of so much money per mile. By the time I reach the final finish line at the Disney World Marathon in Orlando on January 6, I will have covered 183.4 marathon miles and hopefully achieved my more important goal of collecting $700,000 for the seven charities.

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