VIRGINIA — Hoyt Lakes native Wendy (Hovland) Cregg, and Grandma’s Marathon founder Scott Keenan, will be holding the finish line tape at the 43rd annual 26.2 mile-race Saturday in Duluth.
Cregg — rather casually — made history at that finish line back in 1977, during the very first Grandma’s Marathon. At age 18, she became the first female champion of that inaugural race.
But there was far less fanfare back then, Cregg remembers.
Now at 60 — still active and in shape — Cregg is being recognized with the Scott A. Keenan Founder’s Award, which honors an exemplary person who embodies the history, vision and spirit of Grandma’s Marathon.
Long distance running was not really something many women did back then, Cregg said on a recent day by phone from her home in the Twin Cities suburb of Eden Prairie, where she works as a nurse practitioner.
Her passion for running was inspired by the woods and trails of her Iron Range home and blossomed as Title IX, enacted by Congress in the early-1970s, gave rise to girls competitive sports in schools across the nation.
Title IX protects against discrimination based on gender in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
Cheerleading had been Cregg’s “sport of choice” during her first years of high school at Aurora-Hoyt Lakes, which later became Mesabi East.
She also ran tack. Cregg had little interest in the other athletics offered to girls at the time, such as volleyball, swimming and gymnastics.
However, “I’d decided before my senior year I didn’t want to cheer,” she said. Cregg then got involved in newer sports available to girls at the time — cross-country, both running and skiing.
Coach “Jack Jeffery had girls on the cross-country ski team for years, but I didn’t know there were girls on the team,” she said.
Those sports pushed Cregg to “work out hard,” especially “trying to keep up with the boys” at practice. It was her “first big leap in fitness.”
During the spring of her senior year, “I joined track like I always did.”
Around that time, “someone wanted to start a running club. That was new,” Cregg said. And after graduation, she began running with the club, particularly with another runner, Brian Karich.
“I ran a lot with him. We ran a lot of dirt roads. We’d turn off on snowmobile trails. We would run in the woods. There was no set plan where we would run,” Cregg recalled.
“I loved to run for the challenge of it. I really liked to be outside in the woods, exploring.”
Distance running was much more appealing to Cregg. “I was never a sprinter.”
Cregg then started college, studying nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. There she joined community cross-county skiing and running clubs. The clubs provided much more freedom than team sports at that time in her life, Cregg said. “I could enter races when I wanted to.”
The summer after her freshman year of college, Cregg decided to sign up for a brand-new road race — started by a group of local runners — along a scenic route from Two Harbors to Duluth.
People often ask how Cregg learned of Grandma’s Marathon, she said. “It was through the club, I presume.”
Marathons were not common — at least not in the Midwest in 1977. There was the long-standing Boston Marathon and some others. But nothing like today, with numerous half-marathons, 5Ks, 10Ks, and the like, she said.
The Twin Cities Marathon didn’t start until a handful of years after Grandma’s, Cregg noted.
She entered Grandma’s, she says, simply because “I wanted to run a marathon.” While competitive, “it was not my aim to win. I just wanted to see if I could do this.”
Cregg had “got up as high” as running 70 miles per week, but didn’t maintain that for long. Most runs were 15 miles, 20 miles at a time — “in the woods.”
“I’d never run 26 miles” in one shot.
Not to mention, she says, “I didn’t have any training guidelines. Now there’s all kinds of stuff available on the Internet.”
There were only 150 participants in that first Grandma’s Marathon — far different from the more than 18,000 runners who participate in Grandma’s three current races: The 26.2-mile main event; the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon; and the William A Irvin 5K.
“At the start line, I was not aware there were any other women there,” Cregg said.
She began the race “at a comfortable pace,” she said. “I do remember around the 15-mile mark, I thought, ‘I feel really good. I’m hardly even tired. I’m gonna speed up.’ And I sped up.”
Her running partner, Karich, was also in the race, and “at some point I passed Brian. He told me, ‘there’s a woman up front and she’s the first woman.’ I thought, ‘I’m not falling for that.’”
But then, Cregg said, she remembers thinking: “What if it is the first woman?” So, “I sped up more.”
Sure enough, Cregg saw a woman ahead.
“Around Lemon Drop Hill” — a notorious make-or-break spot on the Grandma’s course roughly four miles from the finish — “I passed her.”
It was then Cregg “knew I could keep my lead. From then on, I was only focused on getting to the finish.”
She remembers it being “hot that day.” And the race didn’t start until 11 a.m. Almost “one-third of the runners dropped out. It was the 1970s and people didn’t know how to pace themselves.”
As Cregg neared the finish, “there was no one near me, male or female.”
Cregg crossed the line with a time of three hours, 23 minutes, “and some seconds.”
While it’s far from a record-breaking finish today — women are now running marathons in less than two and half hours — “it would still be a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon for young women,” Cregg said.
She had made history by being the first woman finisher of Grandma’s, but “there was not a lot of hullabaloo” at the end of the race, she said. There were people watching and cheering, but nothing like the crowds of today.
In fact, “they didn’t even give out prize money until the next year,” which is also when organizers “began recruiting elite runners.”
Life after the race
People always ask Cregg “what came next?” — expecting, perhaps, she went on to compete in a string of marathons across the country.
“Not really much,” is her response.
“I still did some running races,” but nothing on a grand scale, she said.
Cregg graduated from college and headed to Montana, where she met her husband, Montana native Casey, and they had three children.
The young family then moved back to Hoyt Lakes for eight years in the 1990s, before moving to Michigan and eventually to the Twin Cities.
“There were not really any races” in Montana, although — somewhat ironically, Cregg says — “my husband’s father started the first running race in Missoula.”
Cregg worked as a registered nurse and focused more on hiking and enjoying the beauty of the mountains. “I was not as keyed in on racing.”
She had also detached part of a hamstring “in a serious water skiing accident,” which forced her to “do different things.”
While in Michigan, Cregg got involved in mountain biking and the Noquemanon Ski Marathon, a 50K and 25K race.
She later returned to school to become a nurse practitioner.
“Even now I set a minimum level of exercise,” she said. “I give myself an ‘A’ if I show up and an ‘A+’ if I work hard.”
Cregg’s Grandma’s Marathon win “really speaks to who she is as a person in every aspect of her life,” said Shelley Valentini, Cregg’s sister and executive director of the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota based in Chisholm.
“It was hard to understand at that time her need to run as I knew of no other women who were running that many miles. It was kind of unheard of,” she said.
But “I’ve seen her put that same drive and work ethic into everything she does — whether it was into cross-country skiing, mountain biking, volunteer coaching, her family, her job, going back to college in her 50s to become a nurse practitioner or, at 60, being the only woman I know who can do 12 pull-ups.”
Valentini said she has always recognized that her sister “had that ‘something extra.’ And have been in awe of it.”
Cregg said she yet thinks about her high school cross-country ski coach and the “passion” Jack Jeffery instilled in her to do her best — and to enjoy it.
She recalls a story of one day listening to public radio broadcast in which “someone was talking about passion” and explained that passion is “when you lose track of time, feel younger than you are and have more energy when you’re done than when you started.”
Cregg realized that’s how she feels about cross-country skiing; and she immediately thought of Jeffery “who shared that passion with me. … It’s an immeasurable gift to give someone.”
As for running — all three of her children, Allison, now 33, who is in medical school in Grand Forks, N.D.; Jared, 31, who works in neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark; and Andrew, 29, employed at a car dealership in the Twin Cities, each ran cross-country.
And Cregg still enjoys being active outside.
“One thing about the Grandma’s course — it really is a special course,” she said. “You don’t always have a view of the lake, but when you do (seeing Lake Superior) is gorgeous.”
Cregg said she was never interested in running a “city” marathon.
“It’s fabulous that Scott Keenan thought to put on this race,” she added of Grandma’s. “He really was ahead of his time