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Grandma’s Marathon volunteers Paul Iverson and Greg Helgeson place brightly colored lettering at the race’s starting line. The marathon, in its 37th year, starts just south of Two Harbors on Scenic Highway 61. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.

It all starts here: Preparing for Grandma’s

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Lake County News Chronicle
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It all starts here: Preparing for Grandma’s
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

It was mostly business, but there were a few laughs Tuesday morning at the Grandma’s Marathon Starting Line Committee meeting in the Enterprise Center in Two Harbors. The group gathered to iron out the final details before 8,000 runners hit the road on Saturday for the 38th annual Grandma’s Marathon.

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No item was too small for the agenda, with volunteer coordinators asking about color-coded garbage bags (clear for recyclables and black for trash) and race director Bill Brown instructing everyone to keep old sponsor banners they find in storage to use as tablecloths. Brown took a moment to thank the volunteer coordinators for their quick response after he asked them to scour the community for more helpers just weeks before the big race. Shortly after his request went out, the ranks were filled.

“You guys really pulled through,” he said. “I’m getting kind of teary-eyed over it. Thanks a lot.”

This is Brown’s first year as race director. He started volunteering in 1993 and was hired in 2003, working as the half-marathon director. Now he works with nine other full-time employees and three interns at Grandma’s Marathon, Inc., the non-profit organization that plans and executes myriad Grandma’s weekend activities, a handful of other races throughout the year and oversees the Young Athletes Foundation charity.

Brown said that he works almost a hundred hours per week during the month before the marathon. His post-race plans include taking a few long weekends to recuperate and regroup after the race is over, but there’s no such thing as down time with next year’s marathon to plan.

“We’re working on the races again on the first of July,” he said — meaning the employees get just 10 days to clear their desks and minds before it’s back to work on the kids races, the 5K, and a half-marathon in addition to the 26.2-mile race.

The number of moving parts that come together for the North Shore’s race weekend each June is astounding. At the start line, there are law enforcement officials to help control crowds and keep the race secure, county highway workers to close roads and keep traffic moving and medical professionals to take care of athletes’ health needs. Business owners, chamber of commerce members and landowners are among the thousands of other individuals involved in the planning and execution of the race. Then, there are over 6,000 volunteers, including dozens at the start line.

Paul Iverson of Two Harbors volunteered for the first race in 1977 and has been at it ever since. On Tuesday after the committee meeting, he and fellow volunteer Greg Helgeson of Two Harbors took advantage of the sunny weather and drove down Scenic 61 where they carefully laid down a thick, yellow line of reflective tape, spelling out “START” in large block letters.

As locals, Helgeson and Iverson aren’t bothered by the traffic delays and overflowing restaurants that come with Grandma’s Marathon. Instead, they get involved.

“I can’t see any negativity on it because it brings business to town,” Helgeson said.

The start line volunteers show up at 5 a.m. and are finished around 9:30 a.m., after sending 8,000 runners off on their 26.2-mile journey and cleaning up the debris they leave behind.

“There are a lot more people now. That makes it harder,” Iverson said of the start line’s most significant change since the late 70s. Participation has increased a hundredfold since the race’s inaugural year. He said his team of volunteers knows its responsibilities, though, and need almost no oversight to pull off a seamless start.

“People really step up,” he said.

If you plan on watching the race, check out our tips for spectators.

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LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141
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