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Back in the mid-1960s, I had returned from the University of Minnesota’s journalism department to take a job as a sportswriter at the Duluth News-Tribune. It was fun, and a lot of work for not a lot of money, which proves times don’t always change. But it was a great place to learn everything there was to know about the sportswriting profession, and to execute it under deadline pressure night after night.
In a year’s time, you could cover big-time college hockey, exceptional high school hockey, small college football, cold and rainy high school football, an occasional basketball game, either college or high school, spring sports like baseball and track whenever they could dodge enough raindrops to play, dirt-track auto racing at Proctor and Superior, Duluth Superior Dukes Northern League baseball, and the occasional big fast-pitch softball tournaments.
W hile writing about all of them, there still was time to stay aware of any special off-beat stories that might be fun to pursue. Of course, when you weren’t out chasing stories, you’d be in the newsroom, crowding around the circular sports desk to write a few headlines, rewrite a few AP or UPI wire stories, and exchange barbs with the likes of Dick Gerzic, Sid Peterson, the immensely talented Davis Helberg, and a few other compatriots. Sports editor Bruce Bennett had long since gone home, or off to a Gopher or Vikings football weekend.
In that era, word filtered through about a tall, skinny kid up on the outskirts of Proctor who could run. Not just run, he could run longer and faster than anyone ever had in Northern Minnesota. Garry Bjorklund was something special, because the achievement of running a 4-minute mile was reserved for the world’s best, and kids from Proctor just didn’t do it. But this one might, I thought. So I arranged to writerre a feature story about Garry Bjorklund, and to make it bigger than the sports section, aiming it for the Cosmopolitan section, the feature Sunday news tab that was inserted into every Sunday News Tribune. We got a photographer, probably Chuck Curtis, to go out and shoot some photos. I’ll never forget the silhouetted image of Garry Bjorklund as he jogged up a gravel road hill somewhere out in the rural area near Twig, which was his actual hometown. Suburban Proctor, let’s say.
Years later, I was at the Minneapolis Tribune, and Garry Bjorklund ran to stardom at the University of Minnesota after his stellar high school achievements. I never saw him, but I kept track of his accomplishments, and I remember being disappointed when he abandoned running the mile to go after longer distances. Running 26.2 miles of a marathon had none of the panache of a spectacular mile, or the shorter sprints, which were fun to watch. Marathons were studies in exhaustion, and besides, who could watch a whole marathon?
A few years after that, Scott Keenan pursued the idea of getting Grandma’s Restaurant involved and conducting a marathon along the scenic North Shore, ending just outside Grandma’s. They called it Grandma’s Marathon, and Keenan enticed his old friend, Garry Bjorklund, to come back “home” and run in the first one, in 1977.
Bjorklund won the first Grandma’s in 2 hours, 21 minutes, 54 seconds in 1977. He was captivated by the lure of long-distance running, and his dedication led to training with a perfectionist’s zeal. He came back again and won it in 1980, at 2:10:20. Now, that’s fast. The only time anyone ran Grandma’s faster was one year later, in 1981. Dick Beardsley, another Minnesotan, and Bjorklund hooked up in a duel I would have been thrilled to see.
They pulled away from the field, and it became an incredible two-man race. They ran together most of the way, and in the final couple of miles, Beardsley got ahead, but nothing was secure that day, so he kept pushing, fearing Bjorklund’s still-skinny frame might be right behind him. At the finish, Beardsley broke the tape in 2:09:37 -- the all-time record. Bjorklund finished second, at 2:11:31. I don’t even know if it still stands as the seventh best time ever run at Grandma’s, but it was an incredible performance for a guy finishing seventh.
This was back in those pure days of sports competition. Nobody thought of hiring in tiny little black guys from Kenya, or Ethiopia, who run up and down mountains as kids, because that’s their way of getting to school and back. Mom doesn’t drop them off in a minivan or an SUV., and there’s not a lot of mass transit. Nobody thought of bringing those lifetime runners from East Africa to the U.S. to train for hours, days, months and years, where U.S. sponsors/agents can lease them out like race horses for salaries that can help them make a good living.
That’s what happens now, and we are thrilled and amazed to watch every year as a group of elite runners from East Africa are hired in to add luster to Grandma’s Marathon, and to give the normal, everyday local types something to shoot for, even as they disappear over the horizon in the lead.
The Kenyans usually dominate, although last year a pair of Ethiopians -- Birhanu Girma and Chala Lemi -- upset them to finish 1-2. Girma won by 33 seconds over Lemi, and Girma’s winning time was 2:12:25. Two hours, 12 minutes, and 25 seconds to cover the 26.2 miles. That’s fast. It seems extremely fast, until you go back and consider that it was three minutes -- minutes! -- slower than Dick Beardsley’s record pace, which still stands from 1981. It was also about a minute slower than Garry Bjorklund’s second-place finish in 1981, and more than two minutes behind Bjorklund’s winning pace in 1980.
Incredibly, as impressive as these streamlined East African runners are, and no matter how impressively they run away from the field year after year, nobody has ever broken Beardsley’s record.
Maybe it will happen this Saturday. Surely it will happen someday. This weekend, though, we’ll sort of keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen this time. This weekend will be race director Scott Keenan’s last race, and it will be the last one News-Tribune reporter Kevin Pates will cover. Both are retiring, and will leave a void in all upcoming Grandma’s. For me, I can still picture Garry Bjorklund silhouetted against the sky as he ran so easily over that gravel hill in Twig, and it’s pretty neat to have the treasure of a couple of lanky white kids from Minnesota holding such a magnificent place in our memories.