Looking back while racing toward retirementKEVIN PATES: Thirty-five years of covering Grandma’s Marathon for the News Tribune comes to a close Saturday.
Jerry Nason covered the Boston Marathon for the Boston Globe for 50 straight years.
He finished that singular streak while in retirement in 1982, as a gifted observer of the world’s oldest foot race. He was a Massachusetts guy, born in Newton, and wrote with clarity and dignity.
He’s remembered this week as the final days of a newspaper career lie straight ahead. Thirty-five years of covering Grandma’s Marathon for the News Tribune comes to a close Saturday.
Roman Augustoviz chronicled the inaugural Grandma’s in 1977 and the next spring he left for Minneapolis. Another sports writer, Bill Brophy, left the newspaper at the same time. The replacements, two Twin Cities guys in their late 20s, were Mark Stodghill and myself.
Running was taking hold nationally in 1978 — hard-core, serious, bust-a-gut, Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers serious.
Stodghill already had the bug and entered the second Grandma’s Marathon. No one was assigned to endurance sports, so while Stodghill ran his first 26.2-mile race, I offered to cover my first 26.2-mile race.
I rode with runners on a bus to the starting line and got to the finish riding with race director Scott Keenan in his 1974 blue Chevy Nova hatchback that he bought from his dad for $1,000.
As Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine said in Casablanca: It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
By the very next year, I was wearing a race number and running shoes. Crazy. Stodghill asked me to join him on training runs, and I got hooked. I ran Grandma’s Marathon five times, through 1984, then returned to the media truck with a notebook, upon request of the News Tribune.
If you’re around long enough you see so much wonderful human drama along Lake Superior from Two Harbors to Duluth: an NFL lineman (Alan Page), a pregnant runner (Sue Olsen) who returned years later to run with her son, and Olympic medalists (Finland’s Lasse Viren, New Zealand’s Lorraine Moller and America’s Joan Benoit).
Some of the most inspiring stories are those of your neighbor, or brother, sister, mom or dad. They set a goal, train and get to the finish. That’s what makes marathoning special. You stand on the same road at the same time with amazing athletes from across the globe. There’s nothing like it in sports.
For much of the past decade I’ve gone from a front-seat kibitzer in the lead pace vehicle to putting on a head set and assisting radio commentator Dick Beardsley, the course record holder. Our first year together, 2005, provided this moment:
Beardsley, the most gracious person you’ll ever meet, sipped a Mountain Dew before the race and dropped the bottle under my chair as we sat facing backward, out of the car. I leaned over, the starting gun went off, the runners sped forward and so did our vehicle. When driver Steve Greenfield stepped on the gas, I fell down and out, onto the ground, ripping the headset out of the console. The vehicle moved on, without me.
Cyclist Tim Andrew was on the course to assist the radio broadcast. He was kind enough to provide a ride, and we caught the vehicle by Mile Four. Beardsley tells the story better than I do.
There have been race days when it’s been cool enough to see your breath, warm enough to make you slow down and enough rain to cause two delays. But Keenan, also retiring this year, has been especially lucky with the weather on the third Saturday of June (or the fourth as is the case this year).
Grandma’s Marathon is exactly 80 years younger than the Boston Marathon, which turned 117 in April. The most famous signpost in running history is Boston’s Heartbreak Hill, near the 21-mile mark. Nason named it.
When hometown star and defending champion John A. Kelley caught Ellison “Tarzan” Brown on the hill in 1936, Kelley tapped Brown on the shoulder just to say hello. Brown responded by regaining the lead and went on to win, “breaking Kelley’s heart.”
Both Stodghill and I claim to have named Lemon Drop Hill, a nasty uphill just past the 22-mile mark. It honors the memory of the Lemon Drop Restaurant on London Road that was lost to the I-35 freeway extension of the 1980s.
I figure that as long as Lemon Drop Hill endures, I’ve got a spot on the course.
Retiring News Tribune sports writer Kevin Pates has covered every Grandma’s Marathon but the inaugural one in 1977. Reach him at email@example.com.