My run at Grandma’s Marathon was tough yet beautiful — and tips for travelers

Runners run on North Shore Scenic Drive, with Lake Superior to the left and trees to the right and ahead.
I took this photo along the Grandma’s Marathon course. Lake Superior is to the left. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Last month, I traveled out of the Mid-Atlantic for the first time since the pandemic began to run Grandma’s Marathon. I’ve been eyeing this race for a while, and on the day registration opened for the 2022 race, I signed up.

While it unfortunately ended up being my slowest marathon, it was a great event, and I enjoyed my trip. This was my 14th marathon and my 10th marathon state on an eventual (hopeful) journey to run a marathon in each of the 50 states. I’m taking it slow and making this a lifelong goal, without an end date, but I am enjoying exploring along the way.

Prior to this trip, I’d never been to Minnesota, where Grandma’s Marathon is held, or Wisconsin, where I stayed for the race, so I got to add two new-to-me states to my overall visited states tally. Counting a state I was driven through as a baby and a couple in which I’ve only been to the corner, I’ve now been to 32 states, but, as noted, I’d like to have a real experience in each of them (and one of those corner states is Utah, which I’ll be visiting next month).

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin in college dorm room with college newspaper.
As the former editor-in-chief of my college paper, I picked up the newspaper on campus. This was my room for my trip.

My trip started Friday, July 17. I’d taken the previous day off work and gotten ready for my trip, staying with my mom and stepdad the night before to catch a super early flight from BWI (they dropped me off at the airport around 4:45 a.m.). Because the flight was so early and because Duluth, Minnesota, is on Central Time, I arrived before 11 a.m.

A group of us runners who had traveled in for the race waited for rides together for a little while because there were very few Uber and Lyft drivers in the area. We actually saw the same driver pick up a group and then come back for another group. I also saw someone representing the race with a sign to pick up someone at the airport (I’m assuming the traveler was an invited/elite runner).

My first stop was to get some breakfast and ice cream, and I had one of my favorite meals of the trip at Bridgeman’s. This wasn’t in the downtown area, but I’d recommend visiting. I enjoyed plenty of delicious food, including lots of ice cream, and craft beer on my trip.

I booked a room in a residence hall at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. Superior isn’t far from Duluth, but it was inconvenient without a car (I’ll share some travel tips at the end of this post). After breakfast, this was my next stop.

Later that day, I was off to the expo at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which was decked out with tons of balloons. I didn’t buy anything, but I picked up my packet — which was just my race bib, info and coupons, as shirts are given out at the finish. I knew there were some fun photo opportunities at the expo and made sure to get some photos.

I’d been seeing a lot about the spaghetti dinner being held at the DECC, so I bought a ticket for that while on-site. For $16, runners could enjoy unlimited spaghetti and meatballs, salad, rolls and bread, and end with a dessert of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Large 26.2 photo opportunity with Vanessa Junkin posing by the dot.
Here I am at a 26.2 photo op at the race expo.

I’d been thinking about what to eat pre-race. I like to have oatmeal, but I did not bring one of the to-go bowls of oatmeal with me. I stopped into a Dollar General that was near the college and I saw instant oatmeal, but I wouldn’t have a bowl or spoon (I didn’t see the single-serve oatmeal bowls). I ended up picking out a box of granola bars. Because I don’t like getting up early, I haven’t been eating much before long runs, but I know I should eat something.

Race Day

On race morning, Saturday, June 18, I boarded a bus across the street from my building. I sat next to someone who was from Minneapolis and running her first marathon, though I didn’t get her name. It was a pretty long drive, as I don’t think we took much of the race course.

We arrived at the starting line in Two Harbors, Minnesota, with more than an hour before the race start, which was at 7:45 a.m. I’d never seen so many people sitting down on the ground and grass before a race! I sat for a little bit, since so many others were sitting. I also had time to use the bathroom twice, drink a little water and get some photos in Two Harbors.

Vanessa Junkin holds race bib and poses in front of a Grandma's Marathon backdrop.
I also posed by this backdrop at the expo.

Some runners took a North Shore Scenic Railroad train to the start, but because I was staying in Superior, it was easiest to catch the bus right from the college. I did purchase a ticket to ride the train later during my trip. There was also a spectator train that was offered, so people were cheering from the open car on the train at the beginning, which was unique and fun.

I lined up in the starting corral near the 5:30 pacer. I knew I would not be anywhere near a personal record (4:17:45 more than 8.5 years ago), but if I were to run sub-5:29:15, that would put me at my fastest marathon since the Salisbury Marathon in April 2019, where I ran 4:50:41. I knew I would not be beating that time on this day, based on my recent running. My three most recent marathons had all been around 5:30.

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin with "Welcome to Two Harbors" sign in the background.
Here I am in Two Harbors before the race start.

I knew pretty early on that I wanted to stop at a porta-potty, so I kept an eye out for any that had short lines. Other than that, though, I felt pretty good. Unfortunately, I’d started the race with chafing from the day before. I brought a thick anti-chafing product for race day, but I didn’t wear it the day before, and I ended up with frustrating chafing just from walking around. I have also been dealing with plantar fasciitis issues. It’s worst right after I do a long run, so it was not awful when I started, but it was on my mind.

As a longtime half marathon pacer, I know pacing is a challenge, and I can understand banking a little bit of time at the beginning for later hills, a potential bathroom stop or something else. I’m not blaming the pacer, as I don’t know when she evened her pace out; I would guess she met her goal. However, I realized I would not be able to stay with the pace group relatively quickly. I’m pretty sure I was behind the pacer for my first two miles, which I ran in 11:14 and 11:06 (the pace for a 5:30 marathon is 12:35). I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for the whole race, but it didn’t feel too difficult right away.

The course had rolling hills throughout, and it started on a downward slope. The uphills earlier on didn’t feel terrible to me, but I felt them more and more as the race went on.

Many runners in starting corral, with train to the left and sign ahead.
I took this photo in the starting corral, with the North Shore Scenic Railroad to the left. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

The majority of the course is along Route 61, North Shore Scenic Drive. The first turn off that road was just before the Mile 24 marker, and then there are only a few more turns in the last mile. The course started off with views of many trees. I was surprised we weren’t seeing more of Lake Superior, but that would come later. Some views were peeks between the trees, others were more expansive. Along the way, there were a few trading posts, cabins and cafes, but it was not built up at all.

The first half of the course was emptier, with some spectators at the ends of their driveways, and of course, the volunteers. There were many more spectators out during the second half — and I appreciated that, because that’s when I really needed more spectator support.

The course reminded me a bit of Big Sur, which I ran in 2015 — something that someone else who ran the race also mentioned in a Facebook group. Big Sur is also a point-to-point course that is a scenic run along the waterfront, with the land forming a cliff down to the water. Big Sur is much more hilly, though, and of course there are other differences.

View of Lake Superior with some greenery toward the bottom part of the photo.
Here’s a view of Lake Superior from the Grandma’s Marathon course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

There were large yellow balloons marking each mile, which provided a good visual cue from a distance. These seemed to be less frequent in the second half, but I did appreciate them.

The weather was great — about 50 degrees — and I noticed at the beginning of the race that the air felt more crisp than the humid air at home in Maryland. I thought this might lead to fewer issues with coughing, an ongoing problem I have had while running, but unfortunately, that became an issue, particularly in the second half. Two days later, it was in the 90s in Duluth, so we really got lucky.

During Mile 6, I decided to stop for a porta-potty that didn’t have too long of a line. I ended up waiting in line for about four minutes, and the line wasn’t moving. Unfortunately, after wasting that time, I gave up on that line and looked for another one. I found one near a restaurant that I think only had one person waiting, so I decided to stop there.

View of Lake Superior with trees to the right of the photo.
Here’s another view from the course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Unfortunately, because of the two stops, that mile was 19:07, after a string of 11- and 12-something miles. That was disappointing, but I wanted to be comfortable during the race.

I had to stop again for a bathroom during Mile 12. This was again unfortunate, but at least I didn’t waste time waiting in a line.

There were a lot of volunteers, and they were awesome. I’d brought Clif Shot Bloks, which I did eat throughout the race, but at one aid station with particularly enthusiastic volunteers, I took a piece of a pancake in a cup. It was really good! I also took the maple syrup fuel offered later on.

I also got water at each water stop, and took some sports drink at many of the aid stations as well. I also liked how some volunteers personalized their offers of water by saying things like, “This water is just for you!” as they held out a cup. The water in Duluth and Superior tasted different to me than the tap water I drink in Maryland. I still drank it, but I didn’t like it as much as the water I am used to (maybe people who live there think the same thing about our water).

Yellow diamond sign reads "26.2 No Prob-Llama Run the Llama Llama" and below, "Free Candy," with a guy dressed up as a llama in the distance.
I saw this sign — and guy dressed up as a llama — during the run. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Although it wasn’t too warm of a day, there were people who had hoses set up on ladders, which provided a spray to run through. I did run through these, as I’m always up for feeling cooler. There was also a saxophonist along the course.

I crossed the half marathon mark in 2:50:58. I was behind where I wanted to be — 2:45 or faster — but I figured negative splits were possible because I’d spent several minutes on bathroom stops. When we crossed the half marathon point, we ran through the start area for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, and there were tons of porta-potties.

I had walked as needed during the first half, but I decided to turn on intervals on my phone around Mile 14. I think I set it on three-minute run, one-minute walk, but I didn’t end up following it that closely, as I was also basing my walk breaks around hills.

Another runner mentioned there were more downhills in the second half. To me, it felt like there were more uphills. This could have been because I was more tired, but I run on flat land all the time, and it was not flat until after Lemon Drop Hill, which is at the Mile 22 marker.

Once we started getting into Duluth and out of the more rural area — around Mile 19 or so — there were many more spectators. I took several photos along the course — I’d taken a couple early on, but then I realized I was really slowing down and it wouldn’t hurt to take some more — so I took a photo of a No Prob-Llama sign with a guy dressed up as a llama in the distance. He offered to take a selfie, so of course, I was up for that.

Vanessa Junkin takes a selfie with a man dressed up as a llama. He has a button reading "No Prob-Llama."
Here’s my selfie with the No Prob-Llama.

At some point, I also saw someone dressed up as Superman, and there were people with signs that said things like “You’re Awesome.”

I’d heard about the Troll dolls that are set up during Mile 20 (I think — if not, it’s somewhere around there), so I was looking for them. I saw them below a curb on the side of the road, lined up from smallest to largest, and snapped a photo. There were a couple people sitting with them and signs set up as well. As I ran, I also saw some chalk messages on the ground.

For runners making their way up Lemon Drop Hill, there was a highway road sign that read “Only 4.1 Miles To Go Great Job Runners.”

I’d also seen this sign in a photo ahead of time, so I was expecting it. How often can you run a race with a highway road sign meant just for runners? I was thinking about whether I could finish the last 4.1 miles before the six-hour mark.

After I realized I wouldn’t finish in under 5:30, I started thinking about other potential goals — 5:40, 5:45, etc. These slipped away, but I did want to finish in under six hours.

In addition to the plantar fasciitis — which was much worse after the race but still noticeable while running — the chafing was really bothering me and I stopped for Vaseline at least twice on the course. The coughing was also getting frustrating. I was slowing down, and Mile 20 and 21 started with a “14,” Mile 22 started with a “15” and 23 started with a “16.” I’m pretty sure it was during Mile 23 that I took my third and final bathroom stop of the race.

Troll dolls are lined up on the side of the road, from smallest to largest, with two signs in the ground and people sitting in chairs in the distance.
Trolls were lined up along the side of the race course. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Once I got into the last few miles, I started picking up the pace. I still did some walking, but I made an effort to run more. I wanted to finish in under six hours, and the roads we were on seemed flat. As I pushed myself toward the finish line, my coughing worsening, I ran the last full mile in 12:26 and the last bit (my watch had .53 — it’s normal to be a little over on the watch) in 6:05, an 11:30 pace.

Although I was struggling, I was able to push myself more at the end because I knew I was almost done.

I crossed the finish line in a time of 5:56:17 and was given my finisher medal, which is a nice medal that’s in the shape of Minnesota. I also got my race shirt, a bottle of water, a chocolate milk and a couple snacks.

Road sign reads "Only 4.1 Miles to Go Great Job Runners" as race participants make their way up a hill.
It’s hard to read, but the sign says, “Only 4.1 Miles to Go Great Job Runners.” This is Lemon Drop Hill. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

There was a post-race party at Bayfront Festival Park. It was walkable from the finish, maybe half a mile or a little more, but I did not want to walk another step (even though I did have to later). My feet hurt really bad, which was disappointing. I was able to catch a trolley over to the park, but the buses to go back to the parking areas would stop running at 3 p.m., and it was getting close to that, so I ended up riding back to the college, where I took a shower and changed.

I decided to head back to Canal Park, where the race finish area was, to get dinner. That was a terrible idea. The places I checked with were packed and had long waits. I stopped in to Bayfront Festival Park and got a couple snack foods from a vendor, but I was starving and I didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Superior, so I ended up eating dinner at a brewery in Superior. I had gotten cranky and I was in a lot of pain, but I felt much better the next day and was able to enjoy the rest of my trip.

Travel Tips (from a first-timer)

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin holding Grandma's Marathon finisher medal.
Here I am holding my Grandma’s Marathon finisher medal.
  • I flew into Duluth International Airport. I really enjoyed flying into and out of this airport because it was super small. There were only four gates, and there was practically no line for security when I arrived for my flight home.
  • Do not rely on Uber and Lyft. I looked it up ahead of time, but I was still surprised just how few Uber and Lyft drivers there were. I was checking the app regularly during my trip — and at normal times, not in the middle of the night — and often there were no drivers to be found. I only took two ride share rides during my trip.
  • I took the Duluth Transit Authority bus often. The bus that I took mostly arrived just once per hour, so I had to plan my schedule around that. The last bus from Superior to Duluth left at 6:50 p.m. most days during my trip. I saw notes about the schedules changing, so of course, check schedules before your trip, but if you stay in Superior, you have to get on that last bus or risk being stranded (because of the lack of ride share). The bus was very affordable at 75 cents per ride, or $1.50 during peak times.
  • It would be better to have a car if you stay at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. I enjoyed staying at the college and it was a great deal — I paid a total of $285 for four nights. However, there was hardly anything right near the college, and I walked about a mile back on two nights after having dinner in Superior (there was also less to do in Superior than Duluth). The bus’ later routes also do not go all the way to the college, so I had to walk further. I did a lot of walking.
  • There are two other college options for race participants — the University of Minnesota Duluth and The College of St. Scholastica. These were also not in the downtown area (but not on the other side of a bridge).
  • I had a loft bed in my room. This was not ideal after running a marathon, but it was not horrible, and I slept well. I had to climb up the side of the bed frame to get into it. There was also a shared bathroom (all-female floor and bathroom) and a shared kitchen. There was not air-conditioning, but that wasn’t a problem for me — I was comfortable during my stay.


Mile 1: 11:14
Mile 2: 11:06
Mile 3: 12:08
Mile 4: 12:36
Mile 5: 11:33
Mile 6: 19:07 (bathroom stop and waiting)
Mile 7: 11:16
Mile 8: 12:31
Mile 9: 13:17
Mile 10: 11:36
Mile 11: 12:56
Mile 12: 14:53 (bathroom stop)
Mile 13: 13:17
Mile 14: 13:24
Mile 15: 13:05
Mile 16: 13:21
Mile 17: 13:42
Mile 18: 14:48
Mile 19: 13:21
Mile 20: 14:40
Mile 21: 14:36
Mile 22: 15:46
Mile 23: 16:03 (bathroom stop)
Mile 24: 13:54
Mile 25: 13:28
Mile 26: 12:26
Last bit (watch had .53): 6:05 (11:30 pace)
Final time on watch: 5:56:22 for 26.53 miles; 13:26/mile pace
Final time on results: 5:56:17; 13:36/mile pace
Splits from results: 10K: 1:21:14, Half Marathon: 2:50:58, 20 Miles: 4:28:15, 23.9 Miles: 5:26:54

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5 thoughts on “My run at Grandma’s Marathon was tough yet beautiful — and tips for travelers

  1. Thanks for the post especially on the travel tips, since I was wondering how others managed their stay…Logistics for this race at least for me was a bear (I stayed in Minneapolis and took a long drive to the course on race day). I even considered sleeping in the car if I could park at the Convention Center for the night

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