Behind the Scenes at Grandmas Marathon

By Carolyn Mather

Runners usually show up a day or two before a big race, check into their hotel, go to the expo and pick up their number, then get a good pre-race meal (Grandma’s has the best!), and get organized for the race. But do you ever think about all the planning that goes into having a wonderful experience for you? Granted no race director controls the weather so you have to go with whatever Mother Nature gives us. And security is built into every race scenario in this day and time.

With the above factors as givens, did you realize when you ask and pay for your race packet to be mailed, it has to be pulled from the general population of packets. When you pick up your packet, do you consider each and every thing that goes into that packet has to be placed there? From a letter of instruction, to an activity guide, to your number and gear bag, to coupons and freebies, a person has to prepare each packet and label it so the name and number matches the name and number placed in the packet. To mail your packet, separate labels have to be created, placed on envelopes and then the correct number has to go in the correct envelope. Then the packets have to be mailed. That is a tremendously time-consuming job.

When you start and throw your bag in a truck at the start, an army of folks have to sort these bags so you can get your stuff at the finish. The amounts of post-race goodies at the finish are spectacular at Grandmas and you can get most anything a tired runner might desire.

Thousands of T-shirts, medals, and other race swag have to be designed, ordered, and packaged for all volunteer and runner areas. This in and of itself takes hundreds of hours!  The Grandmas office which is located near the finish line in Canal Park, is continuously inundated with visitors and calls. The phone never stops ringing.

All of the expo vendors have to be secured and contracted, then sent credentials, parking passes, and other information to get them to the venue in time to set up their booth so you can peruse their offerings and get a freebie or two. It takes a point person and lots of helpers to get all of this sorted out.

Spiral notebooks need to be put together of all participants by race and sex and assigned number. In this way you can be identified as you cross the finish line or if you have a medical issue. We all are overjoyed to hear our name announced as we come to the finish line.

Hundreds of volunteers need to be secured and assigned specific tasks. The water and Powerade tables at every one of the sixteen marathon fluid stations need to be staffed throughout the race and volunteers scheduled to arrive and set up while you are still sleeping. At Grandmas there are actually four events. The Whipper Snapper Kids race, the William A. Irvin 5K, the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, and Grandmas Marathon have a total of approximately 20,000 participants. All of these runners and their families and friends need to be accommodated.

Grandmas Marathon orchestrates this task with eight full-time staff members and one part-time staff member plus various persons hired for specific areas as the race gets closer. The volunteer coordinator utilizes nearly 6000 volunteers to help out in many varied jobs. T-shirt bags, credentials, and related goodies have to be packed and picked up by captains. Grandmas recognizes their volunteers with a thank-you party about ten days after the race and every volunteer receives an invitation. Without volunteers the race could not take place.

All credentials need to be sorted and distributed along with appropriate passes, tickets, and other giveaways. Media guides need to be written and press provided with what they each need to do their jobs. Press releases are developed and those lovely pictures which are taken of your accomplishment have to be staged.

Signage needs to be produced and distributed all over the course and in Canal Park where all races finish. The Half and Full are point to point along beautiful Lake Superior, thus buses to the start have to be secured and loaded to get folks to the proper start. Grandmas also provides a train ride to the start for marathoners on a first come, first served basis.

Grandmas also has huge Rock the Big Top entertainment in Canal Park Friday and Saturday nights along with an all-day (11am-9pm) and all-you-can-eat pasta party on Friday. Guest speakers do presentations on Friday afternoon. Every event needs volunteers to get the job done. Tickets need to be sold and info needs to be distributed. Ten to twelve hours driving to the nearly fifty hotels in the area to provide them with Official Weekend Guides is also vital to getting the information out. All area hotels need to receive information about the weekend activities and sponsors need to get their boxes of assorted credentials, tickets, and shirts delivered. All of this stuff has to be organized and boxed and delivered.

VIP experiences need to be planned and carried out to meet the expectations of those who want something extra special. These opportunities include backstage meet and greet with the Big Top Tent entertainers and other VIP experiences. Course tours both actual and virtual are available for all registrants. Sponsor events are also organized and scheduled.

Awards need to be checked, boxed and labeled so the correct award goes to the correct recipient. Supplies need to be purchased for the three hospitality suites. And Grandmas opens their hospitality suites to everyone. Elite runners need to be picked up at the airport and taken care of over the weekend.

This list of things being done is only a partial rendering of all that goes into a race of this quality. There are so many more areas that have to be covered including city permits and police and security. It is a daunting endeavor and every detail is covered.

Much planning goes on during the entire year before the race. The course miles are marked with balloons (Yellow for the half and teal for the Full), so you can see the miles approaching. Massage, medical, and shower information also go into the runner’s package. The streets are cleared and the mile markers painted mostly in the dark of night. And this year Grandmas is actively involved in a green initiative with recycling a paramount issue.

I have been coming to Grandmas Marathon since 1994, when I ran the women’s national championship and my husband ran his first marathon. I continue to return every year both running and volunteering, although I am down to doing the 5K these days as I am too slow to be of any help if I run the Half or Full. Having participated in many marathons in the United States and throughout the world, I can assure you that the people of Duluth, with the guidance of the awesome staff at Grandmas truly produce a “world class race with small town charm.” I have never witnessed another place where the entire town embraces the event so totally and no one, nowhere does it any better. Grandmas Marathon is the epitome of the best. It is a must for every runner’s bucket list.

So much goes on during the two weeks before the events that the staff work nearly non-stop pulling all the varied threads together to weave a very fine, flawless product. Grandmas truly aspires to the very best in all areas and their expectations truly come to fruition. So when you pick up your packet, grab a cup of water, or eat your pasta dinner, think of all that has gone into producing this unforgettable weekend, say thank you a few times. A smile and a thank you are always a pleasant reward to someone who has given of their time so your race will be fantastic.

Marathoners’ goal to be sprinting home at Mile 26. (Photo by Carolyn Mather)

Categories: Features

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