The heart and soul of Grandma’s Marathon is retiring from the race he helped start.
Executive director Scott Keenan of Duluth told his staff Friday morning that the 37th Grandma’s Marathon on June 22 will be his last. He’s the longest-serving marathon race director in the United States.
“I know you can’t go on in a job forever, but sometimes I think I wear an S on my shirt. I still think I’m Superman,” Keenan said at his office on Canal Park Drive, near the marathon finish line.
“There’s been a turning point for me the last three years. When I’ve left the hosue each morning of the race I’ve told my wife (Carrie) that it was my last year. It’s been on my mind, and this year I finally decided it was in my best interest to move on. It’s hard to let go, but I’m not willing to take that stress anymore.”
Keenan, 59, graduated from Duluth Central in 1971 and while a student, and a runner, at Minnesota Duluth he was part of the North Shore Striders, a local running club. That group started Grandma’s Marathon in 1977 and Keenan was race director on a part-time basis. He also worked part-time as a house painter, graduated from UMD in 1981 and became the marathon’s full-time director in the mid-1980s.
Grandma’s Marathon went from 160 runners in 1977 to one of America’s most popular, most respected races almost overnight. U.S. Olympic track runner Garry Bjorklund of Twig helped popularize the event by winning the inaugural race, and meticulous attention to detail had runners spreading the word nationally. It was ranked No. 14 in the United States in 2012 by the number of timed finishers with 5,785.
“Scott is a homegrown guy with a real affection for our sport and he has a right to be so proud of what he’s done,” Bjorklund, 62, said from home in Fort Collins, Colo. “He’s done more good for runners, and for those who want to be runners, than you can imagine.”
“He’s encouraged people in Northeastern Minnesota especially, by putting on other races, like the Park Point Five Miller and the Fitger’s 5K. Starting the Wednesday Night at the Races for children, that was brilliant.”
Keenan directs seven full-time staff members, while the not-for-profit Grandma’s Marathon, Duluth Inc., is directed by a 17-member board of directors. Grandma’s Marathon, the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and associated races operate on a $2.39 million annual budget.
Grandma’s is Minnesota’s oldest marathon and was the state’s largest until early last decade when eclipsed by the Twin Cities Marathon, run from Minneapolis to St. Paul (with 8,781 finishers in 2012). Grandma’s Marathon had sold out for 14 straight years through 2008 when there were a record 9,888 entries. It has an economic impact of $8.5 million annually, according to Visit Duluth.
As of Friday, when registration closed for 2013, there were 7,303 marathon entrants, 7,832 in the accompanying 23rd Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and 1,997 in the 20th William A. Irvin 5K on June 21.
“Grandma’s Marathon is the best race I’ve been in, and I’m not just saying that to make Scott Keenan happy. I’ve always said it,” course record holder and Minnesota native Dick Beardsley, 57, said from home in Austin, Texas. “There’s not a better run, a better organized race, with such amazing community involvement. You feel like everyone in town is involved with the marathon. I don’t know how you can do it any better.”
Bjorklund entered the 1977 Grandma’s Marathon as a member of the North Shore Striders and as a favor to Keenan. He won a second time, in 1980, in a course-record 2 hours, 10 minutes, 20 seconds, one of the world’s best times that year. Beardsley entered in 1981 as a favor to Keenan and was pushed by Bjorklund to a course-record 2:09:37. They are two of the race’s most vocal ambassadors.
Keeping Grandma’s Marathon at the elite level has been Keenan’s driving pursuit, which has become a challenge — competition from other races, the national economy, attracting sponsorship dollars and the organization of nearly 6,000 volunteers. The past two years Grandma’s Marathon also has been host to the USA Half Marathon Championships.
Weather always weighs on race directors as runners, after months of training, hope for a decent race day. Lightening and heavy rain in 2002 delayed the marathon by 30 minutes, which Keenan anguished about. There was also significant heat and humidity in 2006 and again in 2009, when organizers considered closing down the race for the first time.
“I’m a perfectionist, I’ve never wanted to race to fail, and the pressure I put on myself is much more than the reality of the race,” said Keenan, who often dabbled away tears during a half-hour interview. “I’ve thought ‘Do I do this the rest of my life?’ But unless I move on, there won’t be a new chapter, and I’m looking forward to a new chapter.”
Keenan says he’s also sensed his mortality in recent years with the passing of friends closely connected to Grandma’s Marathon, including Don Fennessy, Alex Ratelle and Kevin Peterson.
As Keenan leaves Grandma’s, he says he hopes to remain in the working world, possibly as a management consultant. He spent 12 years as a distance coach at St. Scholastica and was on the Duluth City Council, including as president. He’s an avid gardener, and he and his wife have seven grandchildren, who Keenan hopes to see more of.
He gave his retirement notice to the board of directors May 28.
“Scott built this race from the ground up; this is his legacy,” said board of director vice-chair John Hartwick. “In my opinion, he’s the best race director in this country. The board is absolutely 100 percent supportive of his decision and we hope this year’s race is a glorious time for him to share with his friends and colleagues.”
“We know we have to fill his spot and we’re just now deciding on how to proceed. But we’re committed to continue to put on one of the greatest races in the United States.”
The Grandma’s Marathon staff had mixed emotion upon hearing Friday’s news.
“If you truly love what you do, you take ownership and pride and do the best you can,” said Linda Hanson, the Grandma’s Marathon finance and operations director since 1987. “That’s a characteristic of every employee here. We put in many, many hours and we’re happy to do so because the races mean so much to us.”
“We have a talented, dedicated staff which lives and breathes the marathon. And that’s the way Scott is. I’m very proud to have been picked by him 26 years ago to be a part of the staff, and we’ll attempt to for on with the integrity he taught us.”
Les Smith has been race director of the Portland (Ore.) Marathon since 1981, likely next in line behind Keenan in longevity. He’s been to Grandma’s Marathon a number of times.
“Scott is truly a great event director. What he’s created in Duluth and for Duluth is absolutely astounding,” Smith said by e-mail. “I’ve sent members of my event committee to Duluth to study what Scott and his organization do each year. His event is like a classroom. You learn from the master. When I visit his event, I always leave refreshed with new ideas.”
Said Minnesota native Ryan Lamppa, media director for the industry publication Running USA: “For a town Duluth’s size to put on a race like Grandma’s is amazing. For its size and scope, there’s nothing like it in America.”
In addition to Hanson, on Keenan’s staff are director of adminsitration Sarah Culver (since 2000), race director Jon Carlson (since 2003), public relations direcot Bob Gustafson (since 2006), promotion and design Zach Hitchcock (since 2009) and director or event development Dani Minardi (since 2010).
Article written by Kevin Pates of the Duluth News Tribune