DULUTH — Most non-runners are in awe when they hear about anyone running 26.2 miles to complete a full marathon.
Imagine the reaction to someone running back-to-back marathons (52.4 miles) with only 45 minutes to rest in between.
That’s what 1999 Virginia graduate Chris Johnson and a handful of others successfully did on Saturday in conjunction with the Grandma’s Marathon.
“I haven’t found anyone that said it was a good idea,’’ he said, including his parents Dave and Jeanette Johnson of Virginia. “Both of them think I was completely out of my mind,’’ Johnson said in telephone interview Monday.
A 2012 video by Eric Strand got Johnson hooked on the idea.
“The first time I heard about Eric Strand doing this, I thought you have to be completely out of your mind to run two marathons like this.’’
He later said to himself, “I think I can do that once and see what it’s like.’’
That day was Saturday — and it started with Johnson’s alarm clock going off at 1:45 a.m. at his friend’s house located along the Grandma’s course. He ate a little breakfast and his wife Barb dropped him off at the Grandma’s Marathon finish line in Canal Park for a 2:30 a.m. start time. The Twin Cities resident noted that the first leg of the double was not an official part of Grandma’s.
Strand and his son Zach were also there waiting with Eric Olson of Luck, Wis., and John Weeks of Burnsville, Minn.
“There was no dilly-dallying. We took off immediately’’ for Two Harbors.
In addition to running attire and shoes, Johnson and his cohorts each donned a headlamp for the darker areas north of Duluth where there is “less civilization to give you any light.’’
The runners each had a few Gatorades hidden in the woods to drink as they took their “time sightseeing on the way up.’’ The group got a beautiful view of the moon running along scenic Highway 61 and later got to see the sun come up just after 5 a.m.
“The sunrise was absolutely spectacular,’’ said Johnson, who stopped with the group selfie with the sun peeking over the horizon in the background.
The group of newly-found friends got to witness “a lot of things that you wouldn’t normally get to see.’’
The men finished their first marathon in Two Harbors at 7 a.m., which was just 45 minutes before Grandma’s Marathon was set to begin.
As the main race started at 7:45 a.m., “there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day to be a spectator.’’
Johnson, 38, was feeling some of the effects of his first marathon and it took about five miles before he felt like he had his legs under him because they were stiff up until then. Despite that, he and the others finished the second marathon in a time of 4:31:46, which was just five minutes slower than the first (4:26:50).
“I skipped across the finish line. That’s special feeling,’’ he said. No matter how tired runners are many sprint that final 100 yards. “You find something in you to do it.’’
Now a married father of two, Johnson began running and did his first half marathon 10 years ago before getting into full marathons. He did his first Grandma’s six years ago and the double on Saturday marked his ninth and 10th marathons overall.
The idea of running back-to-back marathons was right in Johnson’s wheelhouse. “I’m just seeking out something that is quirky.’’
Just last September, Johnson ran the Ely half marathon (portage division) with a canoe squarely on his shoulders.
“I come up with these ideas to have some fun with running.’’
The double marathon quickly caught his attention, but even Chris and his wife Barb questioned the 52.4 mile challenge.
“Who in their right might would do something like that,’’ Johnson said. However, he figured why not because it only takes relatively few hours out of your life. Besides that, “it makes great conversation.’’
His wife Barb (also a runner) was a big influence on him to get started, but she wasn’t 100% behind the idea at first. “She doesn’t condone this activity either’’ but realized she wouldn’t be able to talk him out of it.
Johnson is glad she didn’t after starting and finishing Grandma’s.
“It’s Grandma’s Marathon. The buzz of the start is just absolutely electric.’’ The course is tightly packed for about 10 miles before getting out into the countryside with just the runners. “I love that feeling of being with people that are cheering for you.’’
He also likes the relative solitude before nearing the finish with the number of fans picking up again in the city with six to seven miles to go.
“The town just pulls you to the finish line. The crowd is always there to support you.’’
Johnson knew he was going to make it, even with “a level of pain I hadn’t felt before.’’ He put that aside, he said, because it wasn’t going to stop him from his goal of completing two marathons in one day.
The exhilarating final stretch, with the crowd cheering the runners on, made a “sense euphoria’’ come over him.
After reaching the finish line and his goal, he was more sore than a usual marathon. “It’s amazing your body can recover from something like that. I didn’t have any problems getting up and down stairs.’’
Johnson credited Eric Strand of St. Louis for coming up with the double marathon, something he uses it as a training run for the Leadville 100 in Colorado in a couple weeks. “If he wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have even fathomed it. I don’t want to take away the limelight from him. It was genuinely because of what those two guys (Eric and Zach) did and the influence it had on me. This is his baby, not me.’’
Johnson, Strand and the others have now created a bond that will most likely never be broken.
“All it takes is one run together to be fast friends.’’