Grandma’s Marathon Race Guide

Grandma’s Marathon Race Guide

Grandma's Marathon Race Guide

Every June the town of Duluth, Minnesota comes out in full force to cheer on runners at Grandma’s Marathon. With just over 6000 marathon finishers, it’s a much smaller marathon than Chicago or New York (with over 37,000 and 50,000 finishers, respectively). Still, it’s one of the bigger races and well known race in the running world. Each year it attracts a deep field of elite and sub-elite runners gunning for a PR on the fast, flat course.

There go the elite guys...way ahead of me.
There go the elite guys…way ahead of me.

Personally, I love the size of Grandma’s. It’s big enough to have elite runners, lots of spectator, a great expo, and other runners around you throughout the race; you’ll never feel like you’re off on your own on a solo run, like you can in some particularly small marathons. And it’s small enough that you miss out on the hassle that comes with the major marathons. To get to the start, I walked out my door to a bus that dropped me off 200 feet from the start line. After finishing, I was almost immediately able to see Kyle (albeit through a fence) and had only a short walk to get my swag and leave. Smooth and easy.

The Course

The course runs along Lake Superior for almost the entirety of the race; on your left is the lake and on your right are tall trees and lush vegetation. It really is an absolutely beautiful course — just cross your fingers that there’s no fog to impede your view. The course is point-to-point, so in the morning they have several buses that take the runners from Duluth (or the neighboring town of Superior) to the start. The bus trip is rather lengthy, so be sure to leave yourself plenty of time (and go to the bathroom first, or else you’ve got a looooong ride ahead of you. Trust me, I speak from experience)

There are two major benefits to this being a point-to-point course.

One: If you are lucky enough to have a tailwind, you will have the tailwind the entire race. Now this could obviously work against you as well, if you’re stuck with a headwind for 26.2 miles. So cross your fingers and toes the wind works to your advantage (and obsessively check the weather multiple times a day, if you’re anything like me).

Two: It has a net elevation loss of 130 feet — you can’t complain about that! There are some very, very small rolling hills, but overall the course is pretty flat. There is a bridge/overpass that you climb over around mile 24 that many people complain about, but I really didn’t think it was a big deal at all.

I got to stare at this beautiful lake for 26.2 miles.
I got to stare at this beautiful lake for 26.2 miles.

The first 19 miles or so, you’re mostly in the country. You run through some small towns and by some businesses; at these places the crowds are pretty good. In between, it’s relatively quiet. You never feel like you’re all alone on the course, but the roads are definitely not packed with spectators. I like this, because I can zone out, focus on my pace, and tick off the miles.

At mile 19 you enter Duluth and everything changes. Suddenly there are people everywhere, and the streets are constantly lined with cheering spectators. This comes at the perfect time! Just as you’re getting tired and maybe just a little bored, you are suddenly bombarded with energy and entertainment. I was able to drop my pace a good bit in the last miles, and I partially credit it to the enthusiastic crowds.

The first 25 miles are entirely straight with zero (maybe one) turn. This is fantastic because you don’t have to worry about running tangents. My GPS watch was the closest to matching the mile markers it ever has been. This ensures you’re actually only running 26.2 miles and not any extra from taking the turns wrong. I was worried the straight shot would be rather boring, but I actually really enjoyed it. The beautiful scenery definitely helped. There are several turns in the last mile where you basically run around the finish line on your way to it; this made the last mile really drag out. But then again, doesn’t the last mile of a marathon always drag out?

Overall, Grandma’s Marathon course gets an A++ in my book.

The Weather

It’s June. No matter where you are, I’d say the weather in June can be rather fickle. In previous years it has varied from being extremely hot and muggy to cold and rainy. But in general, the average high tends to be around 70 and the low around 48. Not too bad for June! Just watch the wind, because you don’t want to be fighting it the entire marathon–not that there’s anything you can do about it!

The Accommodations

This is probably the worst part of Grandma’s Marathon. Duluth is a relatively small town (~86,000 people) and has a limited number of hotels. Grandma’s Marathon is by far the biggest event there, so hotels sell out quickly and are double or triple  (or even quadruple) their usual price. If you’re willing to pay the premium for a hotel room, be sure to book extra early (even up to a year in advanced). If you’re not willing to pay that much for a hotel room (we weren’t!), there are 3 dorms that open up to the marathon runners and their families.


This bridge near the finish line is famous for some reason. Go see it (and figure out why it's famous!)
This bridge near the finish line is famous for some reason. Go see it (and figure out why it’s famous!)

Most dorms have a 2-night minimum. They come with sheets, pillows, towels, and two twin beds (for the regular 2-person dorm room). There is free parking and internet, but no air conditioning. Our room faced the setting sun and got rather toasty each afternoon, but we were comfortable at night. Unless you get an apartment, there are communal bathrooms and a shared living area with a tv. We found the dorms to be very quiet since everyone was there for the marathon, and I actually enjoyed the camaraderie of staying around the other runners. Additionally, there are buses that go directly from each dorm to the start line; I literally walked out the back door and hopped on a bus.

Your three options for dorms:

University of Minnesota at Duluth: It’s about $100 a night for a regular 2-person dorm room. You can also get a 4-person apartment with a living room, kitchen and 2 bedrooms for $225 a night.

The College of St. Scholastica: It’s $98 a night for a 2-person dorm room, $214 a night for a 4-person suite, and $272 a night for an apartment.

University of Wisconsin at Superior (where we stayed): About $77 a night for a 2-person dorm room. Unlike the other places, you can reserve just Friday night for $115 (as opposed to the usual 2-night minimum).

We stayed at UW-Superior. The rooms were clean, quiet, and the cheapest option of the 3. Superior is right next to Duluth, so being in Superior instead of Duluth was never an issue for us. It’s hard to pay $75 – $100 a night for a dorm room with a communal bathroom, but it’s a lot easier to swallow than paying $400/night for a basic hotel room that usually goes for $100. There’s definitely some price gauging going on, but there’s not much to do about it.

Home, sweet home for our time in Duluth
Home, sweet home for our time in Superior

If you ever have the chance to run Grandma’s Marathon, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s a beautiful course, well run, and just the right size; I can get over the expensive housing for the sake of running this great race. In fact, I’d been planning on running Grandma’s again this year with my husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law; this should show how much I loved the race, because I run a race twice. Unfortunately, the June race has already sold out! Here’s looking at you, Grandma’s 2017; I’ll be sure to sign up extra early.

What’s your favorite race? What late spring/early summer race should I run, now that I can’t do Grandma’s Marathon? 

5 thoughts on “Grandma’s Marathon Race Guide

  1. Loved reading your write-up! I’m from Duluth, but this will be my first time running (doing the half). I’m so excited!

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