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DULUTH – A tunnel of noise greeted runners as they made their way across the Lester River and into the city and a welcoming crowd of spectators. Signs waved, cowbells rang out and high-fives were exchanged.

For the first time in two years, Grandma's Marathon brought thousands of runners and their fans to the streets of Duluth for a miles-long party that serves as the unofficial start to summer and the busy weekends to come.

"This feels like back to normal," said LeeAnn Harlander of St. Paul, who was stationed along London Road not far from the house she grew up in with a sign that read "Chuck Norris never ran a marathon. Go Andy Go!"

The return of Grandma's Marathon after last year's cancellation due to the pandemic was more than the typically joyous occasion of a major road race — it was the start of Duluth's rebound as a summer destination and a glimpse at a post-pandemic "normal."

Call it a recovery run.

"From reopening the Lakewalk to welcoming thousands of runners, it's starting to feel real: Duluth is back," said Mayor Emily Larson. "So is hope and optimism — you can see it on the faces of the crowds watching today's race. You can feel it in the local businesses that are embracing the foot traffic today. And you know it's real because it's everywhere."

Canal Park was packed with folks watching runners cross the finish line, though it wasn't as congested as it has been for past races. That was planned: The after-party and related events were moved to Bayfront Festival Park this year to spread out runners and spectators as part of a suite of COVID-19 precautions.

The races were also capped at half capacity — 4,000 runners each for the marathon and half-marathon — and the crowd of spectators was somewhat subdued as a result. Yet the energy was constant and contagious along the city portion of the route.

"Being back here, it's just really fun. I forgot how much fun it is," said Chloe Pitts of Duluth, who was cheering for her boss near 21st Avenue E. She was drawing smile after smile from runners with her sign that read "Nice Legs."

Businesses, especially along the route and in Canal Park, were looking forward to the surge in traffic, and some of the crowds spread to other business districts as well. A recently reopened stretch of Superior Street downtown was busy with people walking around in a way it hadn't been in months, and folks were showing up in Lincoln Park and West Duluth in waves as well.

Race organizers said runners and spectators all "rolled with the punches" of the COVID-19 precautions put in place this year. The phased start times sent a steady stream of runners throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

"I think we saw the community had missed the event maybe just as much as the runners," said Zach Schneider, marketing director for Grandma's Marathon. "We saw lots of people out early and throughout the day. We thought this might feel like a normal Grandma's Marathon once it came into focus — and it did."

It was less of a spectacle than in years past — fewer people dressed in silly costumes, though there was the occasional cow and Princess Leia among the crowds — but it was a welcome restart to gatherings for many.

"It's really nice to be back doing things, and that we're outdoors is even better," said Emily Geissler of Duluth, who was cheering along London Road with her daughter, Lily.

Kevin and Steph Preckel were watching not far from the bottom of the dreaded Lemon Drop Hill near the Endi apartment complex. The former marathon runners were glad to be able to take in the sights again.

"This is the only day of the year that we drink beer at 10 a.m.," Kevin Preckel said with a laugh. "We always come down and always tempt ourselves to run it again. It's very contagious."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496