Behind the Scene At Grandma's Marathon, by Carolyn Mather, Running Journal/Racing South


Carolyn Mather is one of the finest observers of our sport and one of its most enduring. Carolyn wrote this piece about the 2017 Grandma's Marathon, and much of what happens behind the scenes of the race. It is a unique view into the marathon and what it takes to make a living, breathing, near city size, annuel event a success.

It's going to be the best #grandmasmarathon weekend to date! #gmas17 #garrybjorklundhalfmarathon #williamairvin5k #dlh

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Did you ever take the time to consider how much work goes into producing a major marathon? Certainly you see what happens at the EXPO and packet pick up and on race day. But did you ever think how much goes into producing a flawless race experience for each participant? First off I can assure you that I know of NO race director who can control the weather, so all possibilities have to be anticipated. Security is a paramount concern for all races and being proactive with all means of security is a huge job and one that every race takes quite seriously.

With the above two factors as givens, did you realize when you ask and pay for your race packet to be mailed, it has to be pulled from the general population of packets. When you pick up your packet, do you consider each and every thing that goes into that packet has to be placed there? From a letter of instruction, to an activity guide, to your number, and gear bag, to coupons and freebies, a person has to prepare each packet and label it so the name and number matches the name and number placed in the packet. To mail your packet, separate labels have to be created, placed on envelopes and then the correct number has to go in the correct envelope. Then the packets have to be mailed. That is a tremendously time consuming job.

All of the expo vendors have to be secured and contracted, then sent credentials, parking passes and other information to get them to the venue in time to set up their booth so you can puruse their offerings and get a freebie or two.It takes a point person and lots of helpers to get all of this sorted out.

Spiral notebooks need to be put together of all participants by race and sex and assigned number. In this way you can be identified as you cross the finish line. We all are overjoyed to hear our name announced as we come to the finish line.

Hundreds of volunteers need to be secured and assigned specific tasks. The water and Powerade tables at every one of the sixteen marathon fluid stations need to be staffed throughout the race and volunteers scheduled to arrive and set up while you are still sleeping. At Grandmas there are actually four events. The Whipper Snapper Kids race, the William A. Irvin 5K, the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and Grandmas Marathon have a total of approximately 20,000 participants. All of these runners and their families and friends need to be accomodated.

Grandmas Marathon orchestrates this task with eight full time and one part time staff members. The volunteer coordinator utilizes nearly 6000 volunteers to help out in many varied jobs. Tee shirt bags, credentials and related goodies have to be packed and picked up by captains. Grandmas recognizes their volunteers with a thank you party about ten days after the race and every volunteer receives an invitation.

All credentials need to be sorted and distributed along with appropriate passes, tickets and other giveaways. Media guides need to be written and press provided with what they each need to do their jobs. Press releases are developed and those lovely pictures which are taken of your accomplishment have to be staged.

Signage needs to be produced and distributed all over the course and in Canal Park where all races finish. The half and full are point to point along beautiful Lake Superior thus busses to the start have to be secured and loaded to get folks to the proper start.

Grandmas also has a huge Rock the Big Top entertainment in Canal Park Friday and Saturday nights along with an all day (11am-9pm), all you can eat pasta party on Friday. Guest speakers do presentations on Friday afternoon. Every event needs volunteers to get the job done. Tickets need to be sold and info needs to be distributed.

All area hotels need to receive information about the weekend activities and sponsors need to get their boxes of assorted credentials, tickets and shirts delivered. All of this stuff has to be organized and boxed and delivered.

Awards need to be checked, boxed and labeled so the right award goes to the correct recipient.Supplies need to be purchased for the four hospitality suites. Elite runners need to be picked up at the airport and taken care of over the weekend. This list of things being done is only a partial rendering of all that goes into a race of this quality.

Much planning goes on during the entire year before the race. Grandmas even has a train to the start on a first come, first serve basis for the marathon. The course miles are marked with balloons (yellow for the half and teal for the full), so you can see the miles approaching. Massage, medical and showers also go into the runner package.

I have been coming to Grandmas Marathon since 1994, when I ran the women's national champonship and my husband ran his first marathon. I continue to return every year both running and volunteering. Having participated in many marathons in the United States and throughout the world, I can assure that the people of Duluth, with the guidance of the awesome staff at Grandmas truly produce a "world class race with small town charm". I have never witnessed another place where the entire town embraces the event so totally and no one, nowhere does it any better.

So much goes on the two weeks before the events that the staff work nearly non stop pulling all the the varied threads together to weave a very fine product.Grandmas truly aspires to the very best in all areas and their expectations truly come to fruition. So when you pick up your packet, grab a cup of water or eat your pasta dinner, think of all that has gone into producing this unforgettable weekend and say thank you a few times. A smile and a thank you is always a pleasant reward to someone who has given of their time, so your race will be fantastic.

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