On any given weekend morning, Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park is closed off from motor vehicles and a new traffic pattern of fitness enthusiasts emerges. Among the bikers, walkers and runners glides a pack of skinny men in short shorts chasing tall dreams. For five men of the Pacers // GRC- New Balance racing team, there is one goal: magic on the shores of Lake Superior during the 39th running of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota.
Evan Jurkovich, Charlie Ban, Sam Luff and Dickson Mercer will toe the start line of Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday June 18th, while Patrick Kuhlmann will represent Pacers Running // GRC- New Balance in the Garry Bjorklund half marathon. Grandma’s marathon began in 1977, at the height of the running boom. It was named for the only local business that would sponsor it at that time, Grandma’s Restaurant. From its first field of 150, the race has grown to nearly 20,000 participants and attracts runners across the country for its fast, flat and scenic course, which easily lends itself to personal records. Many still recall a fast day back in 1981, when famed Minnesota native Dick Beardsley won the race in 2:09. At the time, he was one of only four people in the entire world to run under 2:10, another being the famous Alberto Salazar. Beardsley would become more familiar to American households the following year, when he would run his epic “Duel in Sun” with Alberto Salazar during the sweltering 1982 Boston Marathon. But in 1981, Beardsley was the still the local boy churning out fast miles in a New Balance kit, and his inspiring win only added to the lore of the race.
Although running is an individual sport, there is a strong sense of community among this squad of harriers heading to the Midwest. They have been able to provide constant encouragement for each other and despite the inevitable challenges of training, including injuries, scheduling conflicts and life responsibilities, emphasize pushing each other to achieve individual bests. Jurokvich explained the strong bond of the team saying, “I think we all thrive a bit around each other and that can oddly carry a lot of weight in the mental game of the marathon.” Indeed, the roster reads like the very makings of an inspirational sports story.
Sam Luff is one of Pacers // GRC- New Balance’s top runners, regularly finding himself enjoying podium finishes at local races. In 2015, he was planning to run the Philadelphia Marathon, but an injury forced him to shift his plan from Philadelphia to Grandma’s. He describes the setback as a blessing disguise, since he was able to train and learn from his teammates. This weekend, he will be the newbie marathoner, making his debut in Duluth.
For Dickson Mercer, the marathon had always been something of love-hate relationship. He finally hit his groove this past fall at the Marine Corps Marathon and PR’ed through the spring. With a baby due in September, this may be the last opportunity to really focus on training hard before onesies and pacifiers take the place of long runs and workouts.
Charlie Ban is the skeptical marathoner making a return to the distance after sustaining a hip injury over the winter. He was persuaded by Mercer to join the group heading to Duluth, changing his recovery focus to getting in shape for Grandmas.
For Evan Jurokvich, Grandma’s will be a homecoming. He completed both the half and marathon races in 2013 and 2014 respectively, earning a personal best in both distances. As a Minnesota native, the race has always held a certain magic for him and he will try to harness that magic into yet another PR on this course.
Patrick Kuhlmann is the master runner contending for a top-three finish. After a solid training cycle, he’ll toe the line with confidence. The field promises to be strongly competitive and a podium finish won’t come without a tough battle on the roads.
Running is never as easy as it looks, but it is certainly made easier with good training partners. Having a strong support system helps for the mental preparation of the marathon. Said Dickson Mercer of his training partners, “I’ve done some really tough workouts on Beach Drive and at the BCC track with all of them, and I think being able to work together is going to be really fun and an advantage for all of us. It simplifies things, in a way.”
Grandma’s allure promises to deliver big things for this squad, but what matters most is that they will be there together. After months of miles, workouts, injuries, work trips and other life complications, these teammates will arrive on the starting line shoulder to shoulder. The marathon is a long, grueling race where so much can go wrong, but the knowledge that you have trained hard for these moments of doubt, with your good friends and teammates, is what makes all the difference.