It was 45 years ago, June 25, 1977, that the first Grandma’s Marathon was held. I had the honor of chatting with two of the 116 finishers of that inaugural marathon, who many of you will recognize as being long time beloved cross country and track coaches at Central and East High School. Here are some of the great memories from Kerry Louks and Dave Wicker.
I knew that Louks was involved in the North Shore Striders (and was an officer for many years), the running group that created Grandma’s Marathon. So I asked for a bit of history on the inception. It all began in August of 1976, after the Billing Park 10K, one of the many races they organized for the Duluth/Superior area. As they were having a beer after the race, the North Shore Strider officers, and some key people, had a brief meeting. Maybe five to ten minutes, Louks remembers. The question posed: “Should we have a marathon?” Unanimously approved. What month? September was ruled out due to the City of Lakes Marathon, August had the Paavo Nurmi marathon, July could be hot. And so it landed in June.
I asked both Louks and Wicker about their training. Both were strong, consistent runners. Wicker was a UMD junior and had just set the mile track record and running three-mile races (metric races came years later). They both thought it would be a fun thing to try. Longest distance training run? Louks did a 20 miler, Wicker did 15 miles. The course started at the split of the Expressway and Highway 61 in Two Harbors. Marathon races were not a common event in the 70’s. And so, as the race started out following the red truck (driven by Gordy Nichols), cars pulled over and curiosity got the best of them. From their windows, the drivers would yell out, “Where are you running?” And then they would laugh when Louks would reply, “To Duluth.” “No, really, where are you going?”, they would ask again. “Really, Duluth.” Even bigger chuckles. They couldn’t believe that anyone would even think about running it. Now 45 years later there are 9000 runners who can’t wait to run that distance on June 18th.
Both Wicker and Louks remember that the marathon started in the late morning (10 a.m.) and that the day was hot with the sun beating down. Grandma’s Restaurant was the initial sponsor and the intent was for the runners to finish in Canal Park and then stay for lunch and beers.
Louks was on track to finish with a 2:36 time (under 6 minute miles). The temperature was rising to 85 degrees with sunny skies and high humidity. And so at about the half way mark, Louks stood a moment too long, under a hose shower on the course. His socks (100% cotton in those days) and shoes were completely soaked, resulting in the painful accumulation of blood blisters as the miles ticked by.
Another marathoner, Dr. John Leppi caught up with Louks. When Dr. Leppi heard of Louks’ blister dilemma, off he sent his son, who was biking alongside, to ride ahead and get his medical bag and a clean pair of socks. They all met up at Lester River, where Louks was handed a scalpel to slice open his more than 20 blood blisters (on each foot). Blood oozed out into the towel. With dry socks and wet shoes, Louks struggled into the finish line running on the sides of his feet. (Note: Louks still achieved a time of 3:28, even with his bloody blistered feet).
Wicker, hadn’t set a time goal, but was feeling pretty good despite the heat. Once on London Road, he ran on the sidewalk and an acquaintance was there on a bike, so she rode alongside encouraging him for quite a while. For the last few miles, Wicker was running by himself, still feeling pretty good except for sunburned lips. This resulted in a seventh-place finish with a time of 2:43:36.
By the way, Wicker’s girlfriend, now wife, Julie Horns, as a 19-year-old, was one of six women to complete the marathon that year. She ran quite a while with a 15-year-old male, who she was able to just barely eke out ahead of him at the finish line, with a time of 3:48:43.
Blisters weren’t the only obstacle that Louks had to contend with on the course. He actually had to stop for a red light and let the cars proceed. Louks spotted the traffic control person toodling back to his abandoned post with a beverage.
Louks, believes he was the first marathoner to get medical attention. He did have to cut his own blisters, but then when he went to the ER, to avoid infection, they had no clue a marathon was even happening that day.
Another claim to fame story shared by Wicker, his teammate, Neil Franz, a 1977 UMD graduate, dropped out of the first race, but has finished every other one since.
Wicker’s dad drove the trail car for the last runner, who came in with a time of 6:05. Who was the first place finisher in 1977? Garry Bjorklund, with a time of 2:21:54 (almost 5 minutes ahead of second place finisher). There are 8000 registered runners for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon this year.
Louks has continued to be involved in running or volunteering with Grandma’s marathon, in some way or another, for the past 45 years. As you approach the finish line, Louks will be there, continuing in his volunteer position of the Finish Line Captain.
Some 30 to 40 years ago, Louks was offered $100 for his red finisher t-shirt from 1977. He almost sold it that day. Will this great piece of memorabilia show up at the North Shore Strider’s reunion being held on the evening before the marathon?
Thanks North Shore Striders, and those inaugural marathoners for paving the way 45 years ago to what has become a summer highlight for Duluth.
Patti is one of our Offical Grambassadors for the 2022 Grandma’s Marathon Weekend. Meet the rest of the ambassadors here.
Favorite Grandma’s Marathon Memory: Growing up, I was the slowest kid on the block. I would never have dreamed that someday I would call myself a runner. But in 1991, I decided to join my brother in signing up for the inaugural Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. My brother laid out a training plan for me (on pencil and paper). I followed it exactly as written, and we were both surprised when I ran a sub 2-hour half marathon. I knew then I was a runner, all thanks to Grandma’s!
Favorite Running (& Life) Quote: “You’re doing the best you can!”
Note: This is the encouragement folks in Ireland give to runners. I like it better than the standard “You’re looking good” since that isn’t usually true.
I Won’t Run Outside If: It’s 40 degrees and pouring rain.