When runners line up Saturday for Grandma’s Marathon, Randy and Megan Back will be side by side.
They plan to cross the finish line the same way.
For both runners, Saturday’s race symbolizes a milestone. Randy Back, 56, will be running in his 100th marathon. His daughter Megan, 22, will be running her very first full-length marathon.
“I saved my 100th for my daughter,” Randy Back said. “It’s my 100th and her first.”
The father-daughter duo has run numerous races together, but Saturday marks their first time tackling a marathon.
Randy Back has run marathons for 35 years. His previous races include not only the traditional 26.2-mile distance but also 50- and 100-mile ultra-marathon events.
His career best time is 2 hours, 52 minutes.
“But that was many, many years ago,” he says, chuckling.
Grandma’s Marathon was the first race Randy Back ever entered. He was 21 when he first ran the 26.2 miles from Two Harbors to Duluth in 1980.
“It was kind of an improbable start,” Randy Back said. “In ninth-grade I was run over by a bus and ended up in the Mayo Clinic having my ankle reconstructed.”
Back recovered from his ankle surgery, but it wasn’t until 1980 that he was inspired to take up competitive running. He made the decision after hearing about amputee Terry Fox.
Fox, then nearly the same age as Back, had lost his right leg above the knee following the discovery of a malignant tumor. The young Canadian refused to limit himself, however, and in April 1980 he set off on a cross-country run to raise money for cancer research. Fox averaged nearly a full marathon every day as he ran 3,339 miles from Newfoundland to just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“From that inspiration, I decided to sign up for my first marathon,” Back said. “I figured if an amputee can do it, I’ve got some hardware and some issues, but I can give it a shot.”
Back had never run a competitive race before he signed up for Grandma’s Marathon; not even a 5K.
“I didn’t even know they existed,” Back said. “Had I known there were shorter races I would have run them, but that wasn’t even on my radar.”
Megan Back has taken more gradual steps toward a full-length marathon. She ran her first competitive race — a 5K — when she was still in high school. She tackled 10K races soon after and then half marathons.
Megan Back has completed five half marathons so far, two just this year in preparation for Grandma’s.
Every step of the way, she says, her father has been beside her to offer guidance.
“He’s told me a lot, and through our training we’ve had a lot of time for him to tell me stories about his ultras and Grandma’s,” Megan Back said. “We’ve hit weird obstacles on the way, so a lot of good lessons.”
Back said leg pain has been the most frequent obstacle she’s encountered. She’s also learned important lessons about staying properly fueled, hydrated and motivated.
“From her standpoint they seem like obstacles, but that’s part of everything I’ve had to deal with over 35 years of running,” Randy Back said. “I’m telling her, ‘This isn’t that unusual. You just have to do this, that and the other thing and it will clear up.’ ”
During the race Saturday, Back said he’ll be running “step-for-step” with his daughter. Megan Back said she’d like to finish somewhere in the five-hour range, but the ultimate goal for both runners is just to cross the line together.
Following his milestone run with his daughter, Randy Back will be gearing up for a USA Triathlon national competition and then the Iron Man Wisconsin triathlon in September.
“Before age marks me out of this, I want to get through one Iron Man,” Randy Back said.
The Superior man had done well in past sprint triathlons, and he is interested to see how he fares in the more extreme endurance races.
Randy Back said it will be a new experience, but one he’s excited to undertake.
“I’ve run a 100-miler where you’re committing to 24 hours of work, so I figure this is half the time,” he said. “And I get an opportunity to bike and swim.”
Of the many races Randy Back has run, Grandma’s Marathon holds a special place for him. He has run the race 27 times — 28 after Saturday — yet he is always impressed by the support shown to runners.
“Grandma’s is very similar to Boston,” he said. “You get the community around it; there’s people out barbecuing and cheering you on from their lawns. … The community wraps around the entire event just like they do out east.”
Megan Back, meanwhile, will have her own personal cheering section, courtesy of her coworkers at St. Luke’s.
“I have some coworkers who are really excited to hold signs,” she said. “The marathon runs right in front of the building I work in, so they’ve been thinking up ideas for the best race sign.”
Among her favorites: All toenails go to heaven.
“I lost a couple of toenails through my previous half marathons,” Megan Back said. “But none through this training so far, and I’m kind of happy about that.”