Building a Marathon Legacy in Grand Rapids

The 11th year of the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon is Oct. 19. It seems like yesterday when the event was born.

In October 2003, when the Millennium Park was being developed, we explored some of the trails being paved in connection with the project. My running buddy (and co-conspirator) Shawn Sweet and I were doing math along the way.

Our conclusion: “A couple of 13-mile out-and-back loops, and we could put on a marathon here.”

We convened a group of running friends for a brainstorming session at the Hair of the Frog Brewery. A couple of beers later, we set a date of Oct. 31, 2004, to hold the first Grand Rapids Marathon.

The following May, we got a booth at the expo of the Fifth Third River Bank Run, and WOOD TV8 got wind of the marathon. The next day, they interviewed me. Four days later, Terence Reuben, director of Metro Health Sports Medicine, was on the phone wanting to know how to get in as our medical team. We met for coffee, and a great friendship was born. Before many years passed, it became the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon.

With the event on running calendars, word traveled fast – and over the next few months, 930 runners signed up to run our first event. We learned how to measure race courses so that our marathon could be an official “Boston Qualifier.”

Almost everything that first year was done conservatively. Staging at Millennium Park, staying off main roads, and using a double out-and-back course kept traffic control to a minimum.

The race weekend came, and we held a small expo and packet pickup at Kosciuszko Hall, one of the Polish Catholic halls on the west side of Grand Rapids.

The day before our race, the wind was so strong our porta-johns blew over. We scrambled to line them up back to back in hopes that they wouldn’t blow over again. Our crew set up the medical tent that night, a “portable garage” we had bought for the occasion. Unfortunately, the wind hadn’t died down yet, and the tent blew into the lake in the middle of the night.

The wind calmed a bit on Sunday, but not as much as we would have liked. At 3 a.m., we were stringing tarps along the sides of the pavilion to make a place out of the wind for runners to pick up their race bibs.

As 5 a.m. approached, I surveyed the landscape. I had no idea how we would be ready before the 7 a.m. “Velocity Challenged” start. Then something magical happened. People started showing up. Jeanne Wilcox, who was coordinating medical logistics, arrived when the medical tent fiasco was in its glory. Dr. Ed Kornoelje, Terence, and their team figured out how to set up a makeshift medical unit using the pieces and parts left of the medical tent, along with copious amounts of duct tape.

The rest of the staff arrived, and we scrambled to get everything in place. At 7 a.m., the early start went off, and over the next hour, shuttle buses brought in runners from remote parking lots. At 7:50, it was apparent that all the runners wouldn’t be shuttled in from the parking lots before the start time, so I made an executive decision to delay the start for 20 minutes. Surprisingly, everyone took it in stride and understood the need for the delay.

At 8:20 a.m., the starting gun went off. The realization of an amazing goal was underway, and with a lump in my throat, I watched as runners filed past, starting their 26.2-mile journey. The event we spent months planning had become a reality.

The weather was a mixture of everything imaginable – wind, rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine. Some of the runners were in costume in honor of Halloween. Many ran their first marathon that day, taking advantage of a hometown marathon for a life-changing experience.

Two hours and thirty-four minutes later, Erik Bush cruised in, stopping a few yards short to pick up his kids and carry them across the finish line, winning the first Grand Rapids Marathon. A few minutes later at 2:58, Debra Gormley of St. Paul, Minn., won the women’s race. Somewhere around 3:30 p.m., the final finisher crossed the line. Our race was a success! Grand Rapids had a MARATHON!

Eleven years after that fateful day, we continue the tradition. The race grows at 20 percent year-over-year and receives accolades from beginner and experienced runners alike. So come join us – and celebrate more than a decade of offering a competitive marathon in West Michigan – whether as a runner (registration is available online for the marathon, half marathon, five-person relay, 10K and 5K), volunteer (send an email here), or spectator at any of our five recommended locations.

Don Kern
Guest Blogger
Don Kern is race director of the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon.