Six months ago, Steve Lukens could barely walk to the end of his Blaine driveway.
The 61-year-old wasn't sure if he'd be able to participate in the 40th Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon after a respiratory illness sent him on countless doctor visits and antibiotic infusions. But on Sunday, he crossed the same finish line he'd crossed for the first time 10 years ago, surrounded by family grateful for his speedy recovery.
"This one was more special because of where I came from," he said outside the State Capitol, teeming with hundreds of runners wrapped in foil blankets and finisher medals on a gorgeous fall afternoon with a light breeze and sunshine that elevated an already momentous occasion.
"It's always so special because these people, they're cheering for me and they've never met me," he said.
The marathon, which begins in Minneapolis at U.S. Bank Stadium and ends in St. Paul, marked the 40-year milestone with a celebratory mood and high turnout. After the event was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, race numbers rebounded to around pre-pandemic levels this year for returning runners and newcomers.
Just when 24-year-old Lauren Jagerson of Minnetonka needed that jolt of energy at the halfway point in her first Medtronic TC 10 Mile, she felt the electric support of spectators outside her alma mater, the University of St. Thomas. It pushed her through to the finish line.
"Going past my college and seeing everyone cheering along the side just made it so much easier," she said. "It feels surreal to be with everybody. I didn't think that it'd be this big of a crowd. Seeing the national to worldwide runners, all the way to the people that this is their first time like myself. Lots of energy. Lots of people that are all supporting and super happy."
Other firsts for the 40th celebration include the intersections of art and athletics. Mike Johnson, first-year volunteer coordinator for the marathon and former St. Thomas track coach, said more than 20 bands were set up along the race route, as well as live mural paintings.
Artist Melodee Strong said running is not her pleasure, but painting is. She has 70 murals throughout the Twin Cities and was completing her latest work at the Capitol — inspired by the representation of runners from around the world.
"A lot of times the winners are from Africa. So I wanted to represent that, and me being Peruvian, I also wanted to represent the indigenous warrior in me and indigenous warriors that I think are running," Strong said. "I think they're warriors, running 26-point-whatever miles, they have a warrior spirit."
Her mural incorporated fast creatures, like the antelope, cheetah, rabbit and hummingbird flying beside two runners against a bold red background. She wore paint-splattered overalls and a Vikings hat, earrings and T-shirt. She said adding art to the marathon gives artists exposure and the opportunity to inspire others in an unexpected way.
"I think a lot of times people don't think that arts and athletics can come together," she said. "It's cool that the arts can be interjected in spaces like this so people can appreciate it because people have interests from all walks of life."
Former Vikings star and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page helped launch the Diane & Alan Page Community Cheer Challenge this year, inviting neighbors to assemble along the course to support runners like Page and his late wife, Diane, did for decades on the corner of Knox and Douglas avenues. In his natural state for marathon weekend, Page was in his neighborhood playing the sousaphone for runners on Sunday.
Back at the finish line, longtime marathon volunteer Dave Bartholow, 68, of Shoreview helped direct runners while he waited for his wife, Carol, 66, to complete yet another race. She lost count after competing in 40 marathons across the country, including two in New York and three runs in Boston.
The family tree is full of runners. Their son-in-law, Greg Haapala, is the race director at Grandma's Marathon.
"Grandma's is my fastest but I think this is my favorite just because of the beautiful finish," Carol Bartholow said.
"It's the perfect day for a race. It might be getting a little warmer as the morning goes, but the breeze helps, and it's just a really nice day for it," she said. "And they've had some really hot ones here. And they've had some really cool ones here. So this is ideal."
Hip replacements for Dave Bartholow in 2015 meant the switch from runner to volunteer. He's done that for more than 20 years because he said the people behind the marathon are close-knit like a family.
"It's a happy feeling. A lot of endorphins come along with running," he said. "This is the largest crowd we've had. It's always crowded — it's always been a popular marathon. But this is the best if not one of the best."
Duza Baba, a 42-year-old epidemiologist living in south Uptown, was greeted by a hug from his 2-year-old son Miles after completing his third Twin Cities race. He said that while it was his worst finish, the support of his son and wife, Emily Harris, made for a sweet ending.
"The crowd was awesome today," Harris said. "Where we were standing, between six and seven, had bubbles and cowbells, people dressed as dinosaurs. It was really, really festive."
Baba said he could definitely tell the difference in turnout compared to last year.
"It's exciting to run in the 40th. I mean, that was also a draw to run," he said. "I love the energy. I love all the cheering moms and kids and families running. I love the atmosphere."