Grandma's Half: A gorgeous and fast course
Disclaimer: I received free entry to Grandma's Half Marathon (Garry Bjorklund Half) as part of being a BibRave Pro. Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro by going to https://www.bibrave.com/bibravepro. Find more race reviews like this one at www.bibrave.com.
Ever since I had heard about this race on a BibRave podcast I began looking into it and put it on my bucket list. It has a great reputation for a having a beautiful and PR-conducive course as well as great support from both the community and race management, so I decided to give it a go this year and I'm happy to have done so.
The expo/packet pickup was held at the Duluth Entertainment & Convention Center (DECC) just a few steps from Lake Superior in Duluth. When we arrived there Friday afternoon around 3pm, there was quite a bit of traffic in line to park in the adjacent garage and nearby lots. The race organizers do warn about this on the emails they send out on the days leading up to the race and recommend getting there either earlier o the day on Friday, or on Thursday instead if at all possible to avoid the larger crowds. Once parked and inside the convention center I walked through the vendors area to pick up my bib and gear bag. There was plenty of staff in hand at clearly marked booths to handle that process quickly; it took me just a minute or two to do so.
There was a large selection of vendors all throughout the Expo floor, with all the gear, hydration, or nutrition you probably need to run a race. The front section of the convention center was separated and dedicated for a Michelina's pasta dinner. It's an all-you-can-eat dinner consisting of spaghetti with marinara sauce (with or without meatballs), Caesar salad, and bread, milk, and water. The dinner also includes ice cream, cookies and coffee. All of that is offered for $14 for adults, $7 for kids ages 5 – 12 , and children 4 and under eat for free, so it is a great deal to take advantage of.
Race-morning logistics and start line
Race management wisely has setup a great system of buses to shuttle runners to the starting area, located several miles northeast of Duluth and right on the shores of Lake Superior. There are several pickup locations on race morning throughout the area to accommodate the various locations where runners are staying. You must take one of the shuttle buses, as no other vehicles are allowed near the starting line, and there is no passenger drop-off access to it either. I found this system to be quite convenient and accessible, as one of the pickup locations was just a few blocks away from the Airbnb we were staying at in Two Harbors.
The start time for this half marathons is at 6:15 a.m. and since I caught one of the earlier shuttle buses, I arrived at the starting line with plenty of time. I was able to use the port-a-potties (of which there were plenty), go through my entire warm-up routine, put my warm-up gear in the bag provided by the race, and turn into the gear bag truck before lining up ready to go.
The sun was coming up over Lake Superior at that time and the natural beauty of the area was simply amazing. Weather conditions for racing were absolutely perfect for my preference, with temperatures in the low 50s with very little wind. There were no corrals, just various pacers holding signs with their targeted finish time to help runners start and stay on track.
Course & Support
Once we were off I was able to fairly quickly find a comfortable starting pace I would hold for the first couple of miles. The course was on a road that was completely blocked off to vehicles, so there was plenty of space to move between all the runners. Things did not feel crowded even though there were a lot of us, and that made things very enjoyable as it makes it easier to find the right stride and establish good rhythm. Once I found the pace I was targeting, I was not only able to hold it but also exceeded it for the bulk of the race, including during the one hill climb of note on the course called Lemon Drop Hill. From the distance it appears higher and longer than what it actually is. I was able to just focus on keeping a steady cadence going through it, and before I knew it I was past it.
Over the last couple of miles the course has a number of turns as it approaches the finish area located near the convention center. I had enough energy left to make a strong push in that last stretch and finish just off a minute off my PR time from just one year ago.
The medical aid and hydration stations were very well spread out and placed every couple of miles along the course. They were well staffed with plenty of volunteers handing out Powerade and water as well as energy gels in the later miles.
The finish line had tons of volunteers handing out medals, mylar blankets for warmth, finisher shirts, water, and electrolytes, and food.
The entire finish area was very spacious with plenty of room everywhere to sit down, stretch, etc. All runners also got a beer ticket with several quality beers on tap to choose from at an adjacent designated area.
I feel this is a high-quality race, with an impressively beautiful and PR-conducive course. Race management clearly does a great job planning and putting on a memorable event. I would recommend to anyone who is considering it and would be traveling to Duluth, to plan and research lodging accommodations WELL in advance (6+ months at least, if not more), as most hotels there and in nearby areas fill-up very quickly, require a minimum 2-night stay, and charge high rates for race weekend, probably due to the popularity of this race, which fills to capacity/sells out weeks in advance each year.