Run 50 States – Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon Duluth Minnesota

When looking for a half marathon to run in the state of Minnesota for my 50 states half marathon goal, it was clear that the Grandma’s Marathon weekend was the top race weekend in the state.

What started off in 1977 as a small 150 participant marathon run by a local running group and sponsored by the newly opened Grandma’s Salon & Grill located in the Canal Park neighborhood of Duluth, has now grown to a world class running weekend that attracts more than 20,000 runners each June.

The race weekend includes not just the marathon but also a 5K and half marathon. The William A. Irvin 5K takes place on the Friday evening to kick off the weekend and the Grandma’s Marathon and Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon (named after the winner of the first Grandma’s Marathon) take place on Saturday morning. You can even sign up for the Great Grandma’s Challenge which involves running the 5K on Friday evening and marathon or half marathon on Saturday morning. And this is what I signed up to do in 2020.

Photo from my Virtual 2020 Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon

Well, we all know what happened in 2020 and when I was at my computer registering for the challenge back in October 2019, I had no idea that I would be running this challenge alone in Boston instead of with thousands of others in Duluth Minnesota. But that’s how 10 solid months of 2020 went, so I took some inspiration from the words I saw on the sidewalk in the photo above while running the virtual half marathon alone during a heatwave in Boston in June of 2020.

It was definitely tough, I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to defer the race til the next year, but I totally understand, permits and medals and swag with 2020 date were all probably paid for already, so I get it. But man was it tough running it alone, it was hot, in the midst of the covid lockdown, no water fountains were turned on in the city and very few options of places were open to buy water (not that I felt comfortable going inside anywhere just a few months into this ordeal).

So I planned out a route that had me stopping at home for a water stop around mile 9 and somehow managed to finish the entire virtual half marathon. I almost feel like I deserve two medals just for stopping at home during the run and actually getting back out there just a few minutes later! I reminded myself of this when I encountered this hill at mile 9 during the 2022 race.

Gary Bjorklund Half Marathon Mile 9

Even though they did not allow refunds or deferments for the 2020 race, they did give us 20% off either the 2021 or 2022 race. I decided to hold out and make sure the 2021 race happened and sign up for the 2022 race. They were kind enough to send another email before registration opened for 2022 saying they were upping the discount to 40% off, which was great. The 2021 race actually happened so I used my discount code and signed up for 2022. I decided to skip the challenge and just sign up for the half marathon.

I was scheduled to fly out first thing on the Friday morning to Minneapolis, but the airlines were in the midst of some massive delays and cancellations due to crew shortages and weather. Even though I thought my early morning flight would be safe, I did not account for the fact that the pilots for the flight had gotten in to Boston rather late the night before and therefore the flight was delayed so they could get the proper amount of rest required by the FAA. Completely understandable, I certainly don’t want to have a tired pilot flying the plane. What I didn’t understand was after the crew arrived and we boarded the plane, they realized that the plane, which was supposed to go to Phoenix the night before but that flight got cancelled, had too much fuel for it to be able to land in Minneapolis. So another hour and a half of waiting for them to get rid of some of the fuel. Maybe it’s just me, but it certainly would have been way more efficient for them to do this while we were waiting on the crew to arrive!

I guess I should just be happy that we arrived safely and that the flight wasn’t cancelled. I had planned to spend a few hours in Minneapolis before driving the 2 1/2 hours north to Duluth, but only really had time to stop off for a quick visit to see Minnehaha Falls so I could stretch my legs a bit.

Minnehaha Falls

I didn’t have much time to eat, so I just got a quick bite at a McDonalds on the drive up to Duluth. Side note: I hadn’t had McDonald’s in over a year and while I know it was awful for me, it tasted delicious. Needless to say I arrived in Duluth and checked into my hotel and was starving. I was also pretty exhausted so I didn’t want to deal with finding somewhere to eat and having a long wait knowing how busy the city was. I headed down to pick up my bib and decided just to attend the pasta dinner offered by the race. Normally I avoid these dinners as I’m just not a fan of mass produced pasta and part of the joy of traveling is trying new restaurants, but my stomach told me to get the quickest food possible. It ended up not being too awful and it was all you can eat, so my empty stomach was very happy. And the ice cream for dessert made me very happy!

When I was picking up my bib, the 5K was just finishing up, I’m so happy that I decided against the challenge since I would have been cutting it close to getting to the 5K on time after the flight delay! After I had dinner I walked around the Duluth Lakefront for a bit before heading back to the hotel to get some sleep before the very early wake up the next morning for the half marathon.

When I say early, I mean early! The race was a point to point course, with no parking at the start line. There were multiple shuttle pick up points throughout Duluth. I was a bit jealous of the marathoners, as they were able to take a train to the start, sounds more fun than a bus!

One of the shuttle stops was at the Duluth mall. When I booked my hotel, I looked for something near a shuttle stop so I wouldn’t have to drive too far that morning. I stayed at the Tru by Hilton Duluth Mall Area which was just down the street from the shuttle stop at the mall. They definitely catered to the runners, they had gatorade and snacks in the lobby and opened the free breakfast early for the runners. It was a great place to stay for the race.

Tip – book as soon as you sign up for the race, hotels fill up right away and expect to pay way more than you want, they definitely up the price for race weekend! You will feel like you are paying NYC prices in the small city of Duluth.

I mentioned how the hotel opened up the free breakfast early, well that’s because we had to get on the shuttle at 4:30am, SO early!! I don’t normally eat before I run as my stomach can’t handle it, but a dry piece of toast and some coffee were much appreciated. I headed to the shuttle and there was quite the long line, but many buses.

Once on the bus, the ride was longer than I thought, maybe around 20-30 minutes. I ended up as one of the last few on the bus, so it was standing room only at that point. The view of the sunrise over the lake was absolutely stunning as we made our way to the start, I wish I had taken a picture, but once we arrived at the start, it was still beautiful, even though not as stunning as during the ride there.

Sunrise over Lake Superior at race start line

The start line was quite busy. The bus driver mentioned that if we needed to use the restroom, that we should walk closer to the front as those lines wouldn’t be as long. I tried to do that, but the lines didn’t seem any shorter and I was afraid I’d get stuck up there and as a slower runner, I needed to start in the back. Needless to say, when the race started, me and many others were still in line for the restroom.

I ended up starting the race late, but I definitely wasn’t the only one, so it didn’t bother me too much. The weather was absolutely perfect for running, it was a nice cool morning, which was lucky, you never know what kind of weather you can get in June, it could have been quite warm.

For most of the race, it went along the shores of Lake Superior, so the course was really beautiful! A beautiful course always helps to keep me running at a good pace.

Views during the race

I was able to keep a good pace thru most of the race even with my now normal walk breaks. The race eventually got closer to downtown which involved running up some hills on a highway. That wasn’t all that fun, but are there even any races without hills nowadays? We ran thru downtown and finished up in the Canal Park neighborhood of Duluth.

Running thru Downtown Duluth

As I was in the final couple of miles, the first of the full marathon finishers were passing by. It’s always fun to be a slow half marathoner and be able to cheer on the marathon finisher as they fly past you!

The finish line was quite busy. There were the typical snacks but also some different snacks, like these spicy dill pickle chips pictured below which I thought were absolutely delicious but it seemed everyone around me was commenting that it was a weird choice and they couldn’t imagine eating them. To each there own I guess.

Post race food

After I had my post run banana and the chips with lots of water, it was time to search for the free beer. I won’t lie, this was my one complaint about the race, it was so difficult trying to figure out where to get the beer. Turns out you had to walk quite a ways away from Canal Park all the way to Bayfront Festival Park, I would say it was almost a mile walk, which normally doesn’t bother me, it’s good to stretch the muscles after running, but I was at the point that I just really wanted a beer!

I finally found the beer and enjoyed it while listening to the free live band they had playing. Luckily the beer was conveniently located next to where the shuttles were located to head back to my car at the mall.

Overall, I can see why this race is the top half marathon in Minnesota. It’s very well run and if you are like me and love larger races, definitely give it a go. And the location of the race can’t be beat. The course was beautiful. They open registration on October 1st each year and it sells out quick, so sign up right away.

Duluth is a great spot to spend a weekend, it definitely surpassed my expectations. Check out my post on my Weekend in Duluth to learn more about all there is to see in this beautiful area of Minnesota.

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