Friday, June 18, 2010

On the run

In for the long run

When Jan Rohde bought a lifetime membership for $100 to run in Grandma’s Marathon in 1990, her husband cringed. He probably isn’t anymore because his wife’s foresight has meant she has run the last 20 marathons at $5 each. And that average cost will only go down as the 69-year-old continues to run in the event.

Saturday will mark Jan Rohde’s 41st marathon. The Two Harbors resident has a goal to run 50 in her lifetime. Her other marathons include New York, Boston, the Twin Cities and the Whistlestop in Ashland.

The grandmother running in Grandma’s has grown used to being a marvel to other runners. When she ran in the Twin Cities Marathon last fall, she was the second-oldest woman who entered.

She said training this year has been slowed by taking care of some of her husband’s health issues but she’s already run to Knife River and back.

Age has little bearing on Rohde, who just keeps on going because she finds running a “real easy sport.”

Early entrant

Larry Sornberger ran three marathons while he lived in the Silver Bay area and worked at Reserve Mining. His first was the 1978 version, just the second marathon in what has become a world and North Shore signature event.

He said the advent of what would become Grandma’s Marathon began casually before the inaugural run in 1977. He knew members of the small running circle in the region who simply did a run from Two Harbors to Duluth as a lark.

“I loved it,” he said of the relatively flat course bounded by a cooling Lake Superior. “It’s a great venue.”

He’s run only shorter races since the early 1980s and moved to the Twin Cities area in 1985.

He was a member of the Silver Bay high school cross country team that won the vaunted Swain Invitational in 1968 and placed at state. The team was coached by Dick Lynch and the runners called themselves the “Lynch Mob.”

He recalls one Grandma’s race when he was feeling he was “hot stuff” as more recreational runners entered the race. Sornberger trained hard in those days, running through North Shore winters and once being met by a snow plow driver clearing a half-foot of snow on the roadway and telling him “you have to be insane.”

Sornberger said he met with a 65-year-old doctor at about mile 15, quickened his pace and left him behind. As he found himself nearing the finish line he could hear a “pitter-patter of feet” behind him. It was the doctor, whose slow and steady pace outmastered the bursting young guy. “He said ‘it pisses you off, doesn’t it,’” as he passed him, Sornberger said. “That taught me a good lesson.”

That little squirt

Wade Olson wondered how he would be celebrating finishing the 1979 marathon. They offered beer, but could he have a soda? He was only 11-years-old.

That such a young kid was allowed to race wasn’t a big deal, Olson said. It was “let’s see if the kid can do it.”

He finished in just under four hours (3:51) and became a “hero for the day” after a story about him appeared in the Duluth newspaper.

He lived in Duluth at the time but now is in Two Harbors. He’s married to 2010 half marathon runner Cally Olson, who lost more than 100 pounds in the past year.

His run inspired his mother to later enter two Grandma’s races.

It was Olson’s only marathon. “I wanted to prove I could do it,” he said. “It was kind of fun.”

First – and last?

Jacob Ojard, 37, of Knife River has wanted to run a marathon since he was 10. Grandma’s will be his first and his goal is simply to “make it to the end.” It could be his first and last long-distance race. “This is like climbing Mt. Everest for me,” Ojard said.

Home away

Sammy Malakwen, 32, is originally from Kenya but has been living with the Salowitz family in Two Harbors for the past few months. He placed 12th in the marathon last year and is looking to improve. His goal is to finish under 2 hours, 15 minutes, and to win or at least place in the top 10.

After a travel catastrophe in 2007 — he had to loan money to get to the race and barely made it in time. He didn’t finish well and owed money. With a return flight set for August, race hosts Steve and Kim Salowitz offered their home and the Two Harbors community rallied to help him financially. Now, the Salowitz stay is a tradition.

“He’s almost like family,” Kim said. “He’s a very good man, and a good father.” Malakwen has a wife and three children back in Kenya. Salowitz says if Malakwen won the marathon he would use the prize money to buy a plot of land that he could pass down to his children.

Happy with half

Ron Brickles, 61, of Silver Bay, will be running his fourth half marathon. He’s been running for 21 years, calling it “kind of an addiction.” Last year, he placed fourth in his age group. His goal is to finish the race under 1 hour, 40 minutes. He was just four minutes away last year. Good conditions would help but he’s not counting on them. “It’s easy to make excuses — too warm, too cold, too wet.” He said he’d consider running the full marathon if he was shut out of the participant cap for the half.

For starters

Here’s a quick trivia question for you: Who shot the starting gun for the first Grandma’s marathon in 1977? Folks from Two Harbors would likely know the answer. Former Mayor Lyle Northey raised the gun for the first three marathons.

He recalls the first start being right where the expressway meets Old Highway 61 and standing in front of the runners and wishing them good luck. They likely all heard him because there were only about 160 runners. “There were not many people running back then,” Northey said. “I don’t think anyone envisioned what it would become.”

Northey said he once advocated that the race start near the baseball field next to the hockey arena. He thought it would be neat to see the runners racing through town like they do in Duluth. He said the Minnesota Department of Transportation didn’t think it was such a great idea.

Page of history

Mayor Northey remembers standing next to former Minnesota Viking Alan Page at the 1979 race. He was a former then as well, as the Vikings had traded Page the year before to Chicago. Some cited his lost weight through distance running as a reason for his diminished skills. Page’s run that year was documented in a Sports Illustrated story, mentioning his new beard and law school. Page is now a Minnesota Supreme Court justice. He was the first NFL player to complete a marathon.

Here’s an excerpt from the July 15, 1979, issue of Sports Illustrated and E.M. Swift’s story:

“Grandma’s Marathon start” reads the banner strung from two birch trees and flapping over Old Highway 61, which follows Lake Superior southwest to Duluth. No buildings are to be seen, only birch trees and pine, on this particular stretch of Old 61, which happens to be 26 miles and 385 yards from Grandma’s Saloon & Deli. Behind the banner some 1,700 runners are milling in rows of yellow and red and blue. Then the gun sounds on this chilly Saturday morning in late June, and the runners begin to bounce forward, hunching up in caterpillar fashion. The ones in the rear whoop in their excitement and they barge up on those ahead of them.

“Alan Page – well-muscled and 6’3” – slows to avoid a collision with another runner. He is in a gray T-shirt, black shorts and a white cycling cap that is smudged with rust where the sweat has soaked through to his “Kennedy ’80” button. His wife Diane, slender in the manner of distance runners, is just ahead of him, wearing blues and greens, also be-capped and Kennedyed. It is a full minute before they pass beneath the starting banner, and another minute before they are able to gain their normal stride. There. Now run, Alan, run.”

She’s into it

Between high school and her 40th birthday, Kathy Ronning didn’t run a single mile. “I needed a 40-year-old thing,” Ronning said, so she signed up to run her first half marathon. “The first time I went running, I went about three blocks and thought ‘What was I thinking?’”

“That was five years ago. She’s now run the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon four times and last year ran the full Grandma’s Marathon. This year, she’s signed up for the half. “I used to think people who ran were crazy,” Ronning said. “Now I guess I’m one of them.”

Her daughter, Becca, is also running the half, though they won’t run together. “I hope to run faster than her,” Kathy said.

Becca will run alongside boyfriend, Pat Farley.

Kathy hopes to run a 2:50 and finish in the top 10 percent of her age group. She said she’s in the best half marathon shape of her life after finishing a training run close to last year’s race pace.

She has some simple advice for other middle-aged couch potatoes: “Start out slow, be determined, and make it your routine. Anybody can do it.”

Late shift

Corey Aspling, 30, of Two Harbors, has been training for Grandma’s with a friend around 10 p.m. several nights a week. “I work a couple of jobs, so that’s when I can fit it in,” he said.

He’s run the marathon five times. “The first few times I didn’t do one bit of training,” he said. Cramps and soreness made him decide it would be a good idea to put in more miles before the marathon, and this year he hopes he can break five hours, a goal he and training partner Brent Lundy of Duluth missed by just two minutes last year.

“Every time I run the marathon, I tell myself I’m never going to do it again, but once I cross that finish line and they put that heavy medal around my neck, I know I’m going to do it again.”

Band plays on

The Two Harbors High School pep band is a staple near the start of the race. The event is its kick-off to the summer playing season. It is the first sanctioned entertainment group to cheer on runners at the three-mile mark in Larsmont.

It’s an early gig. Students meet at 6 a.m. in the band room to get ready and hit the bus at 6:30. And they play rain or shine.

Many of the members will be seen again soon with the famous Two Harbors City Band at its first concert next Thursday.