Meet The 3 Men Making History At This Year’s Grandma’s Marathon
John Naslund, Jim Nowak and Joe Johnson will make history Saturday - the three runners have taken part in every single Grandma's Marathon since its inception in 1977.
Naslund is from Two Harbors and a former UMD student who currently resides in Bloomington.
Nowak is also from the Northland - he is from Duluth and now lives in Wisconsin.
Johnson is from Michigan and still lives there to this day.
All three of them were kind enough to chat with me about their historic run and what it means to them.
What was your first Grandma's Marathon like?
Naslund: "It was in 77. It was 150 people, low key. I think it started at 11 o'clock in the morning and it was an 80 degree day so if you can imagine it was kind of tough. We didn't know any better."
Nowak: "Well, they started the race at 11 o'clock because they didn't want to interrupt the Grandma's lunch hour - I think that's the story anyway. It was an extremely hot day. It was in the 80s. I think 86 but it might have been warmer. I just remember that it was strung out, that there might be one or two runners and there wouldn't be another runner for a quarter mile. I was running with a group of guys. [...] I made it to 18 miles and I started feeling sick and I ended up tossing my cookies so I got to the finish and I said, 'Well, that's it. I'm not going to do this again.' It was really a tough race. I think I was 52nd place or something like that which sounds good but it wasn't 8,000 runners then."
Johnson: "I'm sure everyone else talked about how hot it was but we started, I believe, at 11 o'clock in the morning. It was very, very hot. Road temperature was nearly 100 degrees, in the 90s. I remember it was hot. There was hardly anybody there. I think there was 116 runners. I don't think anybody knew who the heck we were!"
How does it feel now to see what Grandma's Marathon turned into?
Naslund: "It was about this size, I think within 4 and 5 years. As I recall, it was like, by 1981, the thing closed early on a lot of people. It was already a lot of people then."
Nowak: "I think it's great. It's great for the city of Duluth. It has really blossomed. The one thing I miss about it is that I'm kind of still like a nobody out there. There are so many people - I don't know anybody. The first year I probably knew, or somewhat knew, about half the field."
Johnson: "Well, it's just amazing how it grew. [...] It just multiplied numbers so fast in a few years. And the community, everybody in the community, has been supporting it. There are so many volunteers."
What do you think makes Grandma's Marathon so popular?
Naslund: "It's a beautiful course. The summer time marathons, as you can imagine, I mean there's a lot of places in the country where you're not going to have any good weather. Texas or Tennessee or someplace like that in the middle of June is going to be pretty hot. They also do a fabulous job of keeping people around after the race. So often, you finish a race, you go get your stuff. You wander off to your car. You head to the airport to go home and with Grandma's, they've got the party going on and people are kind of encouraged to stick around for the party so its, it's a lot of fun,especially for out of towners."
Nowak: "Well, it's right along the lake. It's beautiful out there. [...] There are fantastic volunteers. There's music on the course. There's probably not too many places you can run a marathon in June where it's not going to be so hot, although it's been hot on several occasions. I think it's just a wonderful race. The other thing is now that they have the half marathon, that brings a lot of people in too because they maybe had run the marathon a couple of times and they just don't want to do the work of running one again but they will do the half and have all the fun of being there so I think that really helps keeps their numbers up."
Johnson: "I think it's the area and it's the course itself too, along Lake Superior. It's beautiful and generally we have nice weather. The rest of the country can be pretty warm and you run by Lake Superior and it will always be, ya know, a little bit cooler and it makes it a little bit better to run."
Is there a year or race that sticks out in your mind throughout all the years of running Grandma's Marathon?
Naslund: "No. I've been asked that a number of times. They all kind of blend together."
Nowak: "The 1979 race - where I was hitting all my mile markers at 6 minutes a mile. [...] It was just kind of amazing that I could take all those steps and have exact steps hit the exact minute for 9 miles straight. I ended up running a 2:47 that day."
Johnson: "I think, probably, right around the same date that Dick Beardsley set the record. That was my fast or could have been my fastest one. I ran it with problems and blisters and everything else and I had to take a break. I wore new shoes like a dummy! I had no socks. [...] Some old guy gave me his wool socks. I don't know why I remember that - I guess because it was frustrating and it was scary that I wouldn't be able to finish but everything went well."
What keeps you coming back every year?
Naslund: "At this point, it's a streak."
Nowak: "Well, there's three of us left and it's kind of like we can't quit."
Johnson: "You know, once you've got a certain amount of them in then it got to be a contest with myself I guess to see if I could keep going. It's gotten harder obviously, too. I just like the people and I like the community and everything else and they do such a good job of putting the race on. I have family members that are running. My wife ran quite a few with me and now two of my daughters are running. My youngest daughter had Hodgkins Lymphoma and she's running the marathon. She's been cancer free so about a year and a half."
Do you have any plans to stop?
Naslund: "I think if you talk to the three of us, we'll tell you that as long as we're blessed to run it, we'll do it."
Nowak: "Well, let's see if we can get through this. I do not want to see a DNF or a 'did not finish.' John Naslund and I were in track together and in a fraternity together and stuff so I know him pretty well and he's tough and he's run all those Minneapolis marathons too so I don't know. I think we are going to be at it a few more years and I'd like to do the 50th when I'm 75 but we will have to see how it goes."
Johnson: "I had hoped to make it to 50. I have foot injuries. [...] I don't have any plans to quit right away. I'd like to make it to 50."
What are you looking most forward to about this race?
Naslund: "I'd like to be able to finish and enjoy the run. That's another thing I like about this race is you can strike up conversations along the way, you get to meet people and there's a lot of good banter back and forth."
Johnson: "Seeing people that I know. There's a lot of friends I know that run it and we support one another. I like being around people that are active like that. I just love the atmosphere. I really do. Everyone's healthy and everybody has their own story when they are running. It's a big event. It's fun to see people like that."
Do you have any advice for someone who may want to run it one day?
Naslund: "Sign up! Enjoy it."
Nowak: "Well, you need to put in your miles. You probably need a good 6 months and work yourself up to probably at least 40 to 50 miles. That's probably the hard part is the training to keep yourself in shape. You should probably try to get one longer run at least of 20 miles so you know you can go that far but I don't even do that anymore!"
Johnson: "My advice would be, well you obviously have to train for it but then you have to realize when you're out there that you will have your highs and lows. Some of it is going to be really fun and nice. Sometimes you have struggles and you just have to work through. That's my advice. You have to have the right kind of training and everything. You have to be prepared."