Grandma's Marathon loses a legend
DULUTH, Minn. -- Hand-written results from the inaugural Grandma's Marathon, on June 25, 1977, note the oldest finisher as Alex Ratelle of Minneapolis. He was 52 and merely placed fourth.
Not fourth among masters runners, those 40 and older, but fourth overall, in 2 hours, 37 minutes and 32 seconds.
Ratelle, an International Falls native, went on to finish Grandma's Marathon for 21 straight years through 1997 and became recognized as the race's grandfather. He died Sunday in Grand Marais, where he had retired with his wife, Patty. He was 87.
"Alex loved Grandma's Marathon and became a great ambassador for the race, and it was an honor to have him as an ambassador," race executive director Scott Keenan said Monday. "He was legendary, he was remarkable, he was incredible."
Although he ran high school track at Minneapolis Washburn (after his family moved from Northeastern Minnesota), Ratelle didn't resume running until he was 40.
His career included 60 missions as a navigator in a B-17 bomber with the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was shot down twice, but sustained only minor injuries when the plane crash-landed. He spent 40 years in the medical profession as an anesthesiologist, living in Edina.
But those who follow running, especially road racing in the 1970s and '80s, know and revere Ratelle as an age-class superstar.
He completed 161 marathons, none more amazing than the 1981 Grandma's Marathon, finishing in 2:30:40 at age 56. That stood as an American record for those ages 55-59 for six years and remains a course record for that age group. He also holds the Grandma's Marathon mark for those 60-64 at 2:48:20, set in 1985 at age 60. He once held eight world age-group records and 32 American age-group bests.
When asked to describe the effort needed to run fast for 26.2 miles at an older age, he quipped to the News Tribune in 2008: "During the first half of the marathon you're afraid you're going to die, and during the second half you're afraid you're going to live."
One member of Ratelle's group of running friends in the Twin Cities was National Football League Hall of Famer Alan Page, now an associate justice with the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Page, 66, ran the 1979 Grandma's Marathon and has a personal best of 3:27:50.
In 2008, Page said of Ratelle: "(He's) relentless, obsessed, compelled. It's absolutely beyond comprehension what he did. He was literally amazing. To be running marathons at that age, and to be running them fast, is something."
When Grandma's Marathon put together its inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1996, Ratelle was as easy a choice as folks like Garry Bjorklund and Dick Beardsley.
Ratelle once said of the race: "The marathon has put Duluth on the map the way nothing else could. It's a grand event. You can just feel the warmth of everyone connected with the race. This is home for me."