Duluth woman face of Grandma's Marathon to international runnersTo many Kenyans and other international athletes who come to Duluth each June, Sarah Culver is the face of Grandma’s Marathon.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
To many Kenyans and other international athletes who come to Duluth each June, Sarah Culver is the face of Grandma’s Marathon.
Culver, director of administration for the race, is also the elite athlete coordinator. She helps runners renew visas by sending letters to U.S. Embassies in their countries. She arranges airport pick-ups, lodging and expense checks. She even had to help one runner find shoes when he arrived from Kenya the day before the race and his luggage didn’t.
For several months before the big day, she’s the point person who fields agent and runner phone calls and e-mails from around the world.
“I don’t leave the office much during race week, so a lot of them will make a point to come here and meet me,” she said of the international athletes. “That’s neat for both of us.”
Culver, who also organizes the awards ceremony and hospitality rooms along with their 10 captains and 200 volunteers, has been with the marathon for 12 years. This year, because Duluth also is hosting the U.S. Half Marathon Championship, she took on more than 200 other elite runners.
Behind her desk sit about 300 color-coordinated files, one for each of the top entrants, men and women, in Grandma’s Marathon, the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and the separate Half Marathon Championships awarded to Duluth in 2012 and 2013. The files contain details ranging from flight times and housing with host families or at hotels to water bottle placement at aid stations. Runners train with certain fluids, such as a specific flavor of sports drink or water, Culver said, and they like to stick with that for their races.
The week leading to Grandma’s Marathon weekend is filled with “putting out little fires” Culver said, as the office of eight full-time and two seasonal employees and one intern take care of final details for the project they’ve been working on for a year. Nearly 17,500 runners are entered.
“This last week is very organized chaos,” said Linda Hanson, finance and operations director for the race. “We are running on sheer adrenaline. We think of every possible solution that could go wrong and have an answer for it if it does.”
Weather is what Culver worries about most when it comes to her charges. Runners in transit have been stuck in Minneapolis and Green Bay because of weather delays. She’s had to hire buses to bring athletes to Duluth when planes weren’t allowed to land.
“Good Samaritans have called from Minneapolis and said, ‘I am here and renting a car and I have this Kenyan with me and I am going to bring him up,’ ” she said. “When I lose runners (unable to get to Duluth) because of airline or weather issues, that’s very stressful.”
But many of the foreign runners aren’t ruffled by the inconveniences of travel, she said.
“The fact that some can get on an airplane on Wednesday from Nairobi, and spend 20-plus hours traveling, and get here on Friday and then run a marathon and come in second, and go home: It’s amazing to me,” Culver said.
When arranging lodging for the elite crew, most of whom are professional runners, choices often depend on what part of the world they come from.
Many of the Kenyans are shy and private, she said, and opt for hotels. Eastern Europeans tend to choose host families, who may be able to provide more palatable home-cooked food.
“They love it,” she said. “They stay with the same families year after year.”
Through her job, Culver has made lasting friendships and learned the cultures of distant lands, she said. One year, a runner from Kenya carried a box of spices, tea and margarine on his lap during his long flight to Duluth, which he gave to her. Each jar was labeled with her name.
“In Kenya, giving food, which is very valuable to them, is one of the most valuable gifts you can give someone,” she said. “They are genuinely the nicest, friendliest, most spiritual people.”