Two Harbors couple welcomes runners into their home
Minnesota nice was alive and well in last weekend's Grandma's Marathon. The marathon touts itself as being a "world-class event with small-town charm," and the host family program for elite runners contributes to that welcoming feel.
For about 20 years, families from across the region have opened up their homes to the elite runners who travel from all over the world to run in the annual marathon.
Martha Firling of Duluth has coordinated the program for the past 15 years and she and her husband Conrad have hosted elite runners since the early 1980s. She said the hosting is as much fun for the families as it is for the runners.
"The families love to just have the experience of meeting all those people from all parts of the globe," she said. "You learn so much about somebody else's culture and language."
Having a host family also gives the runners a chance to relax and become familiar with the area before running the big race. According to Firling, Grandma's Marathon is the only race that has an extensive host family program.
"Traditionally runners arrive and are on their own, basically," she said. "Here these runners are welcomed by a host family at the airport. They show them the race course so they're not lost. They're not wandering around. It's amazing how quickly the families adopt the runners like a member of their own family."
Seasoned marathon runners are quick to realize how special the program is.
"All of the runners say without exception and without any prodding that the two neatest things about this marathon are the hospitality and the organization," Firling said. "They all say that there's no other marathon that they've been to that's as great hospitality wise."
This year a total of 30 elite runners stayed with 20 host families in cities around Duluth. One of the host families was Bob and Ellen Anderson of Two Harbors. The couple has hosted runners since 1991.
"You learn about different styles of living and it's just been a wonderful education," Ellen said.
"You meet friends from all over the globe," Ellen said.
The Andersons hosted 24-year-old Charles Munyeki and 39-year-old Patrick Kiptum, both Kenya natives. And when Kiptum introduced his friend, Samuel Kosgei, a 27-year-old Uganda native, to the Andersons, they were quick to invite him to dinners at their home.
All eyes were on Munyeki this year as he had the best personal record marathon time of all the runners who entered the race. His best time, 2:07:06, was run at the 2009 Chicago marathon. This was his Grandma's Marathon debut.
Munyeki comes from a rural area about five hours away from Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. When he's not training for races, he farms small amounts of corn and raises livestock on his two-acre farm. He's the oldest of four children, and said he got into running marathons in order to win cash prizes after he didn't have enough money to continue his college education in Kenya.
Kiptum is also a native of Kenya, but has been living in the United States and hasn't returned to his home country for 10 years. He now lives in Stillwater, Okla. This year's marathon was a personal test for Kiptum, as he hadn't run a race since the 2007 Grandma's. For the past four years, Kiptum has been recovering from tendinitis in his knees and has been working his way back up to running long distances.
"I almost gave up on running," he said.
Kosgei, like Munyeki, was also making his debut in Duluth. Kosgei is from Kenya's neighboring country, Uganda. There, Kosgei was a businessman, buying livestock and selling it to restaurant owners. This, he said, is how he became a good runner. As a businessman, his feet were his only mode of transportation for traveling hundreds of miles to buy and sell cattle.
Eventually, he moved to the United States to attend Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and was on the indoor track team while he worked towards a degree in public health. Kosgei's specialty is running shorter distances, so this year he ran in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. His ultimate goal: to make it to the Olympics.
"I won't stop running until I make it to the Olympics," Kosgei said with a huge smile. "I just know I can do it."
The runners say they have a very rigorous training schedule, and usually run about 100 miles a week to train for a marathon. They do this up until the last few weeks prior to the marathon, when they slowly cut back the number of miles they run in order to rest their muscles. All three felt prepared for the marathon and satisfied with their training.
The News-Chronicle spent the weekend with the elite runners and their host family. The following is an account of the time they spent on the North Shore and in Duluth as reported by Brittany Berrens.
Charles Munyeki was expected to arrive at the Duluth International Airport around 11:30 p.m. Ellen and Bob drove to the airport, only to find out that his flight from Chicago to Duluth was cancelled because of fog.
Ellen tried calling his agent, but couldn't contact him because Charles did not have a cell phone. United Airlines said that another flight from Chicago would be arriving around 2:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon. With that, the Andersons drove back home to Two Harbors, hoping to hear more information Thursday morning.
The Andersons drove to Duluth once again in hopes of greeting Munyeki at the airport. I joined Bob and Ellen on their ride up to the airport to meet Charles and hopefully get to talk with him on the ride back to Two Harbors.
We checked the flight information only to find that the plane was delayed again due to fog. Ellen and I made our way up to the airport cafe and watched the United Airlines plane from Chicago land. After we saw the plane land and hook up with the terminal, we made our way to the gate and waited as passengers began to exit the plane. Ellen held a sign with Charles' name on it, but as the last passengers left the area and security closed the hallway doors, we realized yet again that Charles was not on the flight.
Ellen talked with employees at the United Airlines counter to try and figure out where Charles might be, but they could not give out any information regarding passengers. Another flight from Chicago was scheduled to come in around 11:30 p.m., but again the airline could not confirm whether or not Charles would be on that plane.
Finally, Ellen called the Grandma's Marathon office. They assured her that she would not have to drive to the airport again and a driver would pick Charles up if he arrived on the late-night flight. Ellen and Bob drove back to Two Harbors without the elite runner they were supposed to be taking care of.
Without word of whether or not Charles made his way to Duluth yet, I went to the media luncheon in Duluth because Charles was expected to attend with other elite runners during a press conference. When I arrived, Bob told me Ellen had gone to the Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth to pick up Patrick Kiptum, but didn't have word yet if Charles had arrived.
Patrick and Ellen got to the DECC just in time for lunch. I was able to talk with him and meet some of his other marathon friends from Kenya. We chatted a bit before Charles eventually arrived around 12:30 p.m. After having a few minutes to eat lunch (his first meal in days, we would eventually learn) he was whisked away to the press conference.
A weary-eyed Charles sat with six other runners, each getting their turn to stand at the podium and answer questions from the press. Charles walked to the podium with a translator and waited for the onslaught of questions from television and newspaper reporters.
They were interested in the fact that Charles had the best personal marathon record of any runner in the race. But even more interesting to them was the fact that Charles had spent two nights sleeping on the floor of Chicago's O'Hare airport. We also learned that while Charles made his way to Duluth by way of bus, his luggage (which contained all of his running clothes and shoes) did not.
Some were puzzled by the fact that Charles did not carry at least his running shoes with him during travel. Despite the bewilderment of the reporters, Charles was a good sport about all of it, answering the questions with a smile and a laugh.
Another question that many asked of the elite runners was how they liked the cool weather in Duluth and the expected wet forecast for the weekend. Most runners said it was not their ideal running weather, especially Charles, who was used to training in Kenya.
After the press conference, Charles, Bob, and Ellen made their way to the runner registration area while Patrick and Samuel Kosgei left to go relax in a hotel room. We made plans to have dinner later that day at the Andersons' home. When Ellen asked what they wanted to eat that night, the runners simply said they wanted beef.
The Andersons drove up to the airport to check if Charles' luggage had arrived. After they realized that his luggage was nowhere in sight, they took him to buy new running shoes and clothes. Running a marathon in new shoes isn't ideal, but Charles didn't have much of an option at that point.
I arrived at the Andersons' house around 6 p.m. It turned out UPS had delivered Charles' lost luggage.
After Patrick and Sam arrived for dinner, Ellen and I got to work. We quickly whipped together a dinner of rice, meatballs, salad, and bread. It may not have been glamorous, but it was exactly what everyone needed.
Dinnertime chat was all about the Kenyans. They told us about what life was like in their home country and how Kenyan politics have been turbulent in recent years. While it seemed troubling to hear of the political turmoil, Patrick was quick to point out that things were not so calm here in the United States either. It's all about perspective, he said.
After a couple hours of food and conversation, Patrick and Sam left to go back to their hotel and rest. Saturday was a big day, and everyone wanted to be sure to get enough sleep.
It was Saturday morning, go time. Ellen made a 4 a.m. breakfast of spaghetti, as Charles requested. After getting him fed and off to the start line, the race began.
Marathon weather was much cooler than last year, with temperatures hanging around the mid-40s. There was drizzle that at times turned to rain but runners had the benefit of a tail wind.
Sam, who was running the half-marathon, ended up placing sixth and besting his personal record time, running the 13.1 miles in 1:03:08. Adding to the excitement of the race for him was the fact that Saturday was his 27th birthday.
Charles was in first for much of the first half of the marathon. Unfortunately, around the 19th mile, he dropped out of the race. He said his legs just couldn't run anymore. A combination of the cold and lack of sleep and food after his flights were canceled seemed to have taken a toll.
Patrick finished the marathon in 26th place with a time of 2:27:40. He didn't qualify for the Olympic trials but, for his first marathon in four years, he was pleased.
Patrick and Sam went back to the hotel to rest and Ellen was looking for Charles again in Canal Park. After he didn't cross the finish line, we called the medical tent to see if he had stopped in there but nobody saw him. Finally, around 1 p.m., hours after he dropped out of the race, the rain-soaked runner went to the Canal Park medical tent to get some warmth. Ellen picked him up there and drove him back to her home, where he immediately went to take a nap.
Saturday night was the night Patrick and Sam promised us that they would cook a Kenyan dinner in exchange for cooking the meal Friday night. After resting for a while, they arrived to the Andersons' home with grocery bags in hand.
Patrick began cutting meat and preparing some beef stew while Sam started cutting up kale and tomatoes. Ellen watched with concentration as the two explained what they were making. They told us that traditionally the meal would be served on banana leaves, and that everyone would just scoop the food up with their hands instead of using plates and silverware. Since banana leaves are not exactly an easily-found commodity in the region, we ate the meal on plates.
About two hours later we were ready to sit down to a dinner of beef stew, rice, cooked kale, and Kenyan tea. This dinner was accompanied with even more conversation, comparing culture to culture. Plates were cleared and the chefs were happy.
"An empty plate is a happy plate," Patrick said. "I see smiles on faces so I know we did a great job."
Though dinner was over, the festivities didn't end. We surprised Sam with a birthday cake and candles, the first he has ever had. His grin went ear to ear as we sang "Happy Birthday" and made him blow out the candles. After a successful day of running and a memorable birthday, Sam could not help but express how happy he was to be spending time with all of us.
"My family was worried that after the marathon I wouldn't be able to celebrate my birthday," he said.
It was fun to be a part of his first birthday cake experience and the runners seemed to be happy to relax and have fun after a grueling day of running and all of the other logistical challenges.
Patrick, Sam, and I met for breakfast at Amazing Grace Bakery and Café in Canal Park. The two of them wanted pancakes and seemed excited at the prospect of getting some good breakfast before making the drive to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
We found a table in the cozy restaurant and started with some coffee. If there is one thing I learned from these runners, it is that they love sugar in their coffee. Multiple packets of sugar per cup just didn't seem enough for these two, and eventually our server just brought a canister of sugar to feed their sugar cravings.
Breakfast brought more conversation, this time about the cultural difference betwewen the United States and Africa. I challenged the two to visit Minnesota in the winter, when snow and seriously cold temperatures loom beyond the 40s and 50s they thought were miserable enough through the weekend.
Sam and Patrick were very happy with their experience and assured me that they were coming back next year. After experiencing the hospitality from the Andersons, there was no question in their mind that they would visit again.
"Making friends and spending time with people here, it just helps you mentally during the race," Sam said.
After two hours at breakfast it was time to say goodbye. We paid our bills and exchanged email addresses, promising to keep in touch. Sam and Patrick hit the road, and I hit my bed. I didn't run 26.2 miles, but after a weekend full of cold weather, chasing down the runners, conversations, and food, it felt like I ran a marathon myself.
Meanwhile, Charles cooked a meal for Bob and Ellen at their home Sunday. While they got out of eating from their hands the previous night, Charles wouldn't let them get away with it this time. He cooked up a corn flour concoction, which was used like silverware to scoop up ground beef and onions.
"I'm going to have to make that for my kids sometime," Ellen said.
The three spent Father's Day with many of the Andersons' family members and got some rest before Charles had to leave early Monday morning. Patrick and Sam arrived home safely Sunday night.
Early Monday morning, Charles' trip to the North Shore came to an end. Ellen and Bob drove him to the Duluth airport, arriving there by 4 a.m. only to find that once more his flight had been canceled. Charles just couldn't catch a break.
They arranged for him to take a flight out of Minneapolis, sending him on a bus from Duluth to catch the plane.
While the trio spent just a short time in Minnesota, Bob, Ellen, and I truly made a bond with the runners as though we had been friends before. It seems that the excitement of the marathon, meeting new friends, and exchanging culture created a fast and long-lasting friendship between us all. Call it "Minnesota nice."