DULUTH — Earlier this week, Mike Maxim finished setting up a new 40-seat outdoor patio space with portable bar that Dubh Linn Irish Pub plans to debut on Saturday morning — just in time for patrons to watch runners in the homestretch of Grandma's Marathon.
Maxim isn't sure what a normal marathon weekend looks like anymore. The past several years have been a mix of pandemic cancellations and road construction on Superior Street, the busy downtown road that runs past his bar.
"It's been so many years," he said. "I can't even remember the last Grandma's. I had to talk to all of the senior staff about what we used to do. It's just such a whirlwind."
A race and a party, Grandma's Marathon is one of the city's biggest and most profitable events of the year, drawing folks from all over the world who generate more than $20 million in economic activity. The scenic 26.2-mile marathon follows the Lake Superior shoreline from Two Harbors, Minn., to Canal Park in downtown Duluth. This year's events, which include the Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon and William Irvin 5K, return to a full-sized field for the first time since 2019.
The number of entrants — 21,000 — rivals 2016 when the marathon celebrated its 40th anniversary with its largest field.
"It took a little more work," said race director Shane Bauer. "It wasn't that yearly routine. It's been almost three years since it was something normal like this. We're getting so used to adapting. Some of the routine things — it's taken a while to get to that groove."
Marathon officials redirected runners and spectators to Bayfront Festival Park for post-race entertainment last year, rather than keeping the crowd concentrated in Canal Park. This is a pandemic change that will stick this year, as bands like the Twin Cities cover band Viva Knievel and Duluth's Big Wave Dave & the Ripples and Rock-A-Billy Revue perform.
Competitors from 60 countries have entered and several of last year's champions are scheduled to compete, including last year's winners Dakotah Lindwurm of Eagan (the first Minnesota woman to win since 1987) and Milton Rotich of Kenya.
On Thursday afternoon, the general manager of Duluth's Radisson Harborview was already swept up in the rush of the weekend. The hotel, at the edge of the race course, was full — along with every other one in town, he said.
"Most weekends are booked up," Jordan Dols said. "The only thing that's different is the clientele. With all the runners, it's somewhat quiet on Friday night because people are getting up earlier."
Airbnb still had local listings available heading into the weekend, ranging from a tent in Carlton for $62 a night to a studio apartment in Lincoln Park for $524 a night.
Tricia Hobbs, the senior economic developer for the city of Duluth, said signs are pointing to a solid tourism season. In April, which was rough weather-wise, the city's tourism tax revenue was 5% higher than in 2019 — a strong year in itself.
"This is something we'll anticipate continuing to climb," she said. "Seeing [Grandma's] fill up for the first time since 2016, and anecdotally looking around, a lot of people are making a family trip or a friend trip."
Brian Daugherty, president of event sponsor Grandma's Restaurant Co., said he has spent every marathon Saturday of his life in Canal Park — including 2020, the year it was canceled. He took photos, he said, then texted the images to at least three dozen finishers.
"It was really fun," he said. The marathon itself put up a balloon arch that day. Cars would part [for runners] like a police car was coming through. It was incredibly touching. It was a memorable and weird experience — full of hope. I thought 'We'll be back. We'll be back.'"
Staff writer Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.