Some people here in Duluth -- which, we should remind you, is the newly crowned No. 1 city in the country if you like to do outdoors stuff -- consider that summer has arrived with pragmatic things such as, the ice melting away from the surface of Lake Superior, or for us to hit three weeks in a row without the temperature dropping below freezing.
Others look at things like the end of high school baseball, softball and track, or the start of the Duluth Huskies baseball season.
For me, summer arrives when Grandma’s Marathon cuts its annual swath down Highway 61 from Two Harbors to Canal Park. No self-respecting winter would hang around past that mid-June date. Which just happens to be falling this weekend.
Will this be the year that somebody breaks the unbreakable course record, set a generation or two ago by Dick Beardsley, who was chased the whole 26.2 miles by Garry Bjorklund for a scintillating 1-2 finish by Minnesotans. Runners get faster, and come from farther away, but nobody has been able to break Beardsley’s record.
Among the highlights for me was two years ago, when Kara Goucher came home to run to a half-marathon victory that not only was a record but qualified our favorite hometown runner for the Olympics.
The point is, whatever else you’ve got planned for Saturday, do something to your schedule to allow you to take in the Marathon. You might volunteer to hand out liquids to the runners, or you might just line London Road to cheer on the runners as they do their thing.
If you do that, you will notice what makes Grandma’s special. Sure, there will be a bunch of very slim, very swift runners from Africa, mainly Kenya and Ethiopia, and they will form a pack out front, that will probably become way out front before the halfway point.
But that doesn’t matter. Grandma’s is the embodiment of the old adage that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how hard you compete. It also is a place where hundreds -- thousands -- of local folks gear up, prepare, and go off to run 26.2 miles. They will run to exhaustion, and they will prove that competing is what it’s all about. Doesn’t matter what their elapsed times are, or if they’re an hour or two behind the leaders. It’s doing your best to go the distance that matters.
It’s not the biggest marathon in the world, or in the U.S., but it’s among ’em. And besides, it’s our marathon.
It would have been possible to watch the entire World Cup soccer tournament for however many weeks it’s going to take, and never hear U.S. fans chant that incessant “USA...USA...USA...” It’s not that I’m unpatriotic. Far from it. But that chant started when Team USA under coach Herb Brooks made that stirring run through the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey tournament, upsetting the mighty Soviet Union, and then rallying to beat Finland in the Gold Medal game.
The chant was born in the Lake Placid arena, and it was such a catchy, nationalistic achievement that the chant has become absolutely trite when it becomes the common theme of every U.S. team in every sport that happens to win.
The World Cup is soccer, soccer, and more soccer, as teams play through four-team round-robin groupings to determine the finalists, and then things get serious, as the teams battle to the finish for the World Cup.
The powers behind the World Cup did a great job of grouping all the teams into their four-team groups. Homestanding Brazil is a favorite, but many pick Argentina to beat Brazil. Still others like Germany. But in each group, there is a potent favorite, a pretty good challenger, a good contender, and a fairly weak entrant. Good for the seeding process.
The U.S. is nowhere near as serious about soccer as all the top teams from around the world, who call soccer football, or, more accurately, “futbol.” Their teams genuinely resemble life and death struggles. In the U.S., we are so arrogant that we believe U.S. baseball, football and basketball are the top sports in the world, and those of us with clearer vision may prefer hockey to those three. We’re closer, because hockey is played in almost every country of the world, whereas baseball, our football, and basketball are minor league by comparison. In every country -- every one -- soccer is the top sport, which is what makes the World Cup so special every four years.
The U.S. is in a group with Portugal, Ghana and Germany. Remember now, you have to finish as one of the top two in your group to advance. Otherwise you go home.
In the opening game, the U.S. got a goal from Clint Dempsey after only 29 seconds of the scheduled 90-minute game. It was the fifth-quickest goal in World Cup history. The U.S. rode that 1-0 lead throughout the game, or at least through the the first 82 minutes. The Ghana players pressed and worked for openings, and with 8 minutes left, Andre Ayew scored and Ghana had tied the game 1-1.
Ties matter in soccer, where it can help determine the final order within groups. But with four minutes remaining, a pair of U.S. reserves collaborated. Graham Zusi booted a corner kick out front, but it seemed just a tad high for a leaping U.S. player to reach with his head. It didn’t matter except as a diversion, because behind him, John Brooks, another sub, timed his leap perfectly and headed the goal.
The U.S. held on, through extra minutes at the finish, and won the game 2-1. It was a huge victory, simply because a loss might have insured a quick exit for the U.S. team. And that set off the celebration, “USA...USA...” and all. Not that it will be easy in Game 2.
Next up, the U.S. faces Portugal Sunday, but any thoughts of an easy game cannot be declared just because Portugal was blown away 4-0 by Germany in its first game. Indeed, Portugal was considered to be a strong challenger, but Thomas Mueller scored three times and Germany established its dominance early. Instead of being down, Portugal’s forces realize immediately that if they can bounce back and beat the U.S., they would have an excellent chance at finishing second and advancing.
We can all but concede first in the division to Germany, although it will be interesting to see if the Germans can duplicate their astounding first game performance when they face a Ghana team unlikely to be intimidated.
That’s what makes the World Cup so great. Here is the U.S., proud of its athletic achievements, and maybe a little arrogant about it, being battled to a standstill by tiny Ghana, a nation from the east coast of Africa, whose players were devastated by the late turnaround that cost them a victory or tie against the U.S.
People in the U.S. who know nothing about soccer will find themselves watching the sport for the first time, maybe. It is worth watching, despite the absence of the free-scoring style we prefer in many sports. Watch for the amazingly intricate footwork, and if you don’t realize how intricate and how difficult soccer is, take a ball out in the back yard and see how long you can maintain possession, and how many seconds it takes until you are thoroughly exhausted. If you think you can master it, get your kid, or a neighbor kid who might be small but has played a little soccer, and see how you can do against a little twerp who knows the game.
John Gilbert has been writing sports for
over 30 years. Formerly with the Star Tribune and WCCO. He currently hosts a daily radio show on KDAL AM.