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Two Harbors native remains one of Iron 3

In 2002, it was the Iron Four as Jim Nowak, Joe Johnson, Rick Jackson, and John Naslund had run each Grandma's Marathon since the first in 1977. Jackson has since missed out, leaving an Iron Three. Naslund, a Two Harbors native who lives in Bloomington, has also run in each of the first 29 Twin Cities Marathon runs. Photo from Forum Newspapers.

They're already in the Grandma's Marathon Hall of Fame - Joe C. Johnson, John Naslund, and Jim Nowak. For this trio of 60-something-year-olds, there's not much left to prove along the North Shore from Two Harbors to Canal Park in Minnesota's oldest 26.2-mile race.

But on Saturday morning, to celebrate the 35th annual event, they'll line up to attempt what only they've done, to start and finish every race since the first in 1977.

Johnson, 61, of Menominee, Mich., is a retired high school physical education teacher; Two Harbors native Naslund, 61, a stockbroker with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney; and Duluth native Nowak, 60, of Reedsburg, Wis., a retired high school special education teacher. Naslund also has a second streak, having finished all 29 Twin Cities Marathons.

In the inaugural Grandma's Marathon, among 150 entrants, Naslund finished fifth in 2 hours, 41 minutes, 17 seconds, Nowak was 52nd in 3:32:27 and Johnson 56th in 3:37:31. They were inducted into the race's Hall of Fame in 2002.

"I'm still alive, I'm still at it," Naslund said this week. But tweaks in his hip and other nagging injuries made this year the closest he's ever come to not running the race. "I'll walk and jog and putt my way through it," he said.

United States Marine captain Emily Naslund is a runner. She won the 1998 Minnesota Class AA high school girls cross country title at Bloomington Jefferson, finished the 2009 Grandma's Marathon and will be alongside her dad Saturday. Last year, she was in Afghanistan as part of the first full-time female engagement team, which accompanied men on patrols in Helmand Province and was profiled by the New York Times. The 28-year-old called her time there "the highlight of my life."

John Naslund, a former University of Minnesota Duluth pole vaulter, said he'll be glad to have company in a quest to maintain his streak of finishing. He did run the Minneapolis Marathon June 5.

"After 30-some years, a lot of the races start to blend together, but when you realize you've been running marathons for more than half your life, it's pretty amazing," Naslund said. "Grandma's is by far my favorite race. It has a soul and (executive race director) Scott Keenan makes it feel like everyone is part of a family."

Naslund, a member of the original North Shore Striders, figures he has a career marathon total of about 150 with a Grandma's Marathon best of 2:35:25 and a career best of 2:28.

Thinking back on the 1970s and the culture of running, he's aware of the sea change. "It became a social event," he said of races like Grandma's and others. "It just mushroomed. The days of the lonely long-distance runner were over."

Naslund ran track at Two Harbors High School and ran into a running crowd at UMD. By the mid-1970s he was operating a running store in Minneapolis with Grandma's legend Garry Bjorklund and was fully into the sport. One year, he estimated he ran an average of 13 miles a day.

It will be a family affair at the Naslund home in Two Harbors. Parents Bob and June will host a large group, perhaps more than they expect, John said with a laugh. "It'll be a celebration," Bob said.

Bob said his son and granddaughter make him feel he did something right in parenting. "Kids can make you feel proud," he said. "I worked two and three jobs to make sure they got some education. They've done well."

Father and son will both say the running bug isn't a genetic hand-me-down. "He likes to do that," Bob said, laughing at the thought of himself running a marathon. "Don't forget he's 61 years old," he said. "He's still taking care of himself."

"I'm trying to stay healthy," John said. "I'll have to just throttle back a little."