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Grandma's Marathon plotting an in-person return to racing, but state approval is pending

The annual Duluth tradition filled up fast, but uncertainty about in-person events remains.

MINNEAPOLIS — Without fail, a Minnesota March warm-up always inspires aspiring runners to seek some guidance, and new shoes, at Saint City and Mill City Running stores, and co-owner Jeff Metzdorff always has a go-to answer. 

"I had a college running coach who said, never go cheap on things between you and the ground," Metzdorff said. "Mattresses, tires and shoes. It's always a good idea to invest in a good pair of shoes."

Metzdorff says a trickier question, is answering runners who ask about the return of running events. For years, Mill City has formed running teams and clubs, but a year after suddenly suspending in-person activities due to COVID-19, the stores are still waiting for guidance.

"We're all kind of looking for guidance from somewhere above us," Metzdorff said. "Hoping that someone will tell us this is the safe amount of people to have in this area."

For now, he and many others are looking up... to Duluth. Grandma's Marathon has plans to bring the annual Duluth tradition back in June.

"If we're able to do what we're planning on in June, we'll certainly be one of the first big marathons to come back," said Zach Schneider, Marketing Director for Grandma's Marathon.

The plans for a return to in-person racing, won't look like past years. The field will be reduced by half and organizers have worked with crowd scientist, Marcel Altenburg, to come up with a plan to bus runners to the starting line in small groups and have them start five at a time, for safe distancing.

"What Marcel's analysis shows us is that, at the narrowest point on the course, participants should expect to have available to them at least 12 feet and most times closer to 20 feet of distance," Schneider said.

Spacing spectators will present a bigger challenge. 

"To the spectators up and down the race course, our messaging right now is, the very best way that people can help this race happen and help support us now and into the future is to stay home this year," Schneider said, adding that they will be adding several livestreaming cameras to help people track runners from home.

The reason for the warning, is because the plan is still tentative, organizers hope to present their plan to the state in the next couple of weeks.

"The current state guidelines do not allow for an event of our size to be held," Schneider said. "So if those don't change, then our hands will be pretty much tied.

For now, Schneider says they are remaining hopeful and flexible.

"There are very few parts of the weekend plan that have been finalized at this point. We know what we're working toward at this point, but we're trying to remain as flexible as we can as conditions change," Schneider said. "If we have to put on a bare bones event so that people can come here and run and do so as safely as possible, that's what we're prepared to do at this point."

If Grandma's does get state approval, there will be plenty of runners willing to take part. All three events associated with marathon weekend have sold out. 

Organizers of smaller, socially distanced races across the state say they've also seen slots fill up quickly.

"We've still had a banner year for signups," Metzdorff said. "Just with people hoping there's going to be some ability to get together and run and make some connections."