‘Everything that goes up has to come down:’ Grandma’s Marathon Cleanup Begins

For some locals who volunteer, cleaning the 7 tons of trash that's left has become a big part of their lives.

DULUTH, Minn.- For runners and spectators, the Grandma’s experience ends after 26 miles at the finish line in Canal Park. But for volunteers, the race is far from over, with cleanup in the days that follow.

“We often compare it to; think about when you throw a party at your house for 20 or 30 people. We just throw a party for 10,000,” said Zach Schneider, Marketing and Public Relations Director for Grandma’s Marathon.

As Duluth settles down after the sunny celebrations more than a hundred volunteers get to work in the couple days after the marathon.

“Everything that goes up has to come down, it’s all pretty temporary. Get it up for those two days and then it comes down until next year,” said Schneider.

Their goal — get rid of almost any physical trace of the race.

“The transformation of the last week comes down even quicker on the back-end of Grandma’s Marathon. So now we have to get the city back to the way we found it and hopefully even a little bit better,” Schneider said.

Members of Grandma’s construction team who set up the tents and all their utilities and work behind the scenes pick up trash in Canal Park, Bayfront, and along the North Shore.

“It’s a beautiful race, right along Lake Superior.  It would be a horrible race if it was just covered with trash,” Finish Line Coordinator Erik Nelson said.

Nelson has been on the Grandma’s team for about 40 years. He’s spent a lot of that time helping pick up and sort the roughly 7 tons of garbage and recyclables left from the event.

“We have several specialized waste streams that don’t necessarily bump into the average Duluthian with their single sort stuff on the curb,” said Nelson, “things that are mixed up, we put out on the autopsy table and take them apart and put them in the right place.”

Recycling, he says, has become more complex as materials and guidelines change.

“There’s some things we collect like the heat sheets and send them to a special waste stream that gets recycled into the composite lumber that people make their decks out of,” he said.

And when you’ve been going through the garbage of upward of 10,000 people from all parts of the globe for as long as Nelson has, you’re bound to run into the strange and unexpected.

“There’s a lot of things that suggest people are more than spectators here,” said Nelson.

“Nothing really shocking, but surprising occasionally. Whether it’s the pregnancy kit we found, or our diaper count’s certainly fairly high this year,” said the Finish Line Coordinator.

“I don’t wanna analyze everybody’s trash. If they throw it away they don’t want it talked about already,” he said.

A dirty job Nelson doesn’t mind spending his father’s day doing. “My daughter’s right behind me, my son’s working over at Bayfront, right now, or at Canal Park, so certainly a family affair.”

Decades picking up trash — and lifelong friends along the way.

“I work with a lot of people who became friends of the years. I also work with some guys who have been friends since childhood,” said Nelson.

“It’s our marathon family. For my family, it’s, there’s my children and then there’s my marathon family,” he said.

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