Saturday, June 26, 2021

Confessions of a non- marathon runner...

Grandma's Marathon, Duluth MN
Written by
by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on   June 26, 2021


This is being written a few days ago when we here in Duluth were still basking in the warm afterglow of the return of Grandma’s Marathon. Welcome back, Grandma, although I didn’t participate in any way this year, even as spectator.


I have in the past, though, and several times greeted our son at the finish line, exhausted but exhilarated. I am always amazed at the thousands of men and woman who run the full or half-marathon. It is beyond my comprehension that anyone would put themselves through that.


It’s always been my deeply held conviction that it is beyond human endurance to run 26 point whatever miles. Don’t forget that history tells us the first person to run that distance, in ancient Greece, dropped dead at the end. Doesn’t surprise me one bit.


Before I’m judged as a marathon heretic, I should point out that such skepticism is rooted in my generation. Coming of age in the 1950s, our culture back then was motor-driven. Almost nobody ran distances, and not many people were that keen on walking at length either.


Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, Grandma's Marathon
Oh, there were a few kids in high school who participated in cross-country foot racing, sprinting at track meets, relay racing, and the like. These boys were called “Thinclads” when their races were covered by the newspaper, which wasn’t often. I don’t recall girls in school participating in that sort of thing at all. They were busy practicing archery clad in their demure blue one-piece gym outfits.


Personally, I tried not to run at all, if I could get away with it. Innate laziness had something to do with it. When I was a kid a neighbor remarked to my mother that I sat around too much. As a teenager I can recall taking the family car to the corner grocery store half a block away from our house. Not every time we needed bread and milk but a few times. I liked to drive.


It was the ‘50s, so long ago now.


So in the ‘70s when we started to hear about marathons around here (of course Boston had had one for almost 100 years) I was nonplussed. I recalled my active duty Army days in boot camp when sadistic sergeants would order what was called “double time” on forced marches to nowhere. Double time is sort of a trot, half way between walking and out-and-out running. It resembles the pace of most marathon runners.


“Hup, two, three double-time” they’d shout intermittently as we marched along well-trod back roads of Fort Lost-In-The-Woods, Mo. (AKA Fort Leonard Wood), sometimes our M-1 rifles (yup, it was that long ago) slung on our shoulders, sometimes with full packs including bedding.


This was no place for a lazy kid from Duluth, but what choice did you have? Boys were still subject to the draft in those days. One time as we double-timed along, gasping for breath, one of the recruits near me fell out to the side of the road and collapsed in the ditch. The sergeants thought he was faking it, but when an ambulance was summoned it was taken quite seriously.


The next time I saw him was back in the barracks, all decked out in civilian clothes the Army had bought him at the PX. Turns out the Army docs had diagnosed a heart condition he didn’t know he had and they sent him home, his military obligation over. I was jealous.


Another thing about that era that might surprise younger people is that a high percentage of the population smoked cigarettes. I was no exception, especially in the Army where cadre would reserve 10 minutes of every hour, saying “light ‘em up.” Nearly everyone did.


Cigarette smoking and endurance running do not go hand-in-hand, I need hardly point out. But nobody cared about endurance running anyway. Once a year the Army insisted that everyone run one mile, apparently to prove the troops were in top condition. One mile, I repeat.


On the day I was caught up in that nonsense, we were trucked to a quarter-mile oval course on the base and ordered to run around it four times. They didn’t seem to care how long it took, just so we ran a mile.


A few of us — four or five friends — took off together trotting in our combat boots as the sergeants at the starting line watched us. When we were across the course from where the sergeants were standing, we slowed to a walk and lit ‘em up, puffed a bit and tossed the butts, after which we trotted past our leaders. I don’t recall my exact time for running the Army mile but I think it was around 11-12 minutes with a couple of Pall Mall cigarettes along the way.


Oops, looks like I’m running out of space here in the paper. Did I say “running?” Well, you can’t avoid it entirely. For the record, I quit smoking cigarettes about five years before the first Grandma’s 45 years ago.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Crime and punishment in Duluth’s long past...

Jim Heffernan's 40 Ford received a ticket for mufflers
Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on June 12, 2021

These are difficult times to be a police officer, we all know — especially the cops themselves. They’ve come under fire throughout the country due to the horrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We all know that, too.

The ongoing controversy has caused me to reflect on how policing here in Duluth and around the country has changed over the years.


For one thing, there were no cops in Duluth schools back when I was a student. The faculty and administration could handle problems on their own, thank you very much. Sure, there were problems, but nothing to warrant police stationed in the high school buildings. Occasional fights had to be broken up, but the faculty handled it. Guns in school? Preposterous.


Police here used to be involved in more issues that really weren’t serious crimes. The first time a cop scared the daylights out of me, he jumped out of a squad car and confiscated the slingshot of a nearby friend, about 10 years old. He grabbed it out of my friend’s hand and broke it apart, got back into the squad and disappeared down the block.


Jim Heffernan's School Patrol certificate
from Duluth police
Whew. We were relieved not to be arrested. We thought you could get sent to Red Wing for owning a slingshot. Red Wing was a famous reform school in Southern Minnesota where some kids we’d heard of actually were sentenced, further preparing them for a life of crime once they got out.


A lot of police activity in those days seemed to involve traffic issues. For one thing, they’d set up radar on main drags and ticket drivers for going over 30. And the newspaper published the names of those offenders, along with how fast they were going, their ages and addresses. Oh, the humiliation.


Cops also pulled over cars with loud mufflers and handed out tickets. That happened to me once as a teenager in my coupe with a sweet sounding, rumbling set of dual exhausts. I’d say my pipes were about half as loud as today’s motorcycles. 


I was just sick when I was issued a ticket and ordered to report to police headquarters in a few days to demonstrate that I’d had the mufflers replaced. I took a chance and stuffed the tailpipes with steel wool, which muffled the sound, and passed my review at headquarters, after which I blew the steel wool out and was back to disturbing the peace with the sound of my car. I felt like an outlaw.


And woe betide any driver whose vehicle didn’t have a bumper either in front or back or both. Siren, lights, ticket. Now most cars don’t even come with bumpers.


The cops were also quite active in the city’s lovers’ lanes at night — places were boy teenagers of driving age would park with their girlfriends for harmless necking or whatever. The cops would sneak up on the parked cars on foot and shine flashlights in to make sure nothing illegal was going on. Nobody knew what was legal or not. Move on, the cops would demand, having invaded the privacy of young people in the early stages of fulfilling their biological destiny. 


These were some of the crimes that tried cops’ souls in that long-past era, although, of course, there were offenses of the more serious variety, even murder, robbery, burglary and so forth. There just didn’t seem to be as much as we hear about today. Now, in our time, many of the difficulties nationally have been initiated by police themselves, such as in the Floyd case.  


Later, when I became a reporter for this newspaper covering the police beat, I came to know quite a few cops, and liked most of them. Some, I felt, didn’t like me, or what I did to interfere with their jobs by writing stories about them. That’s always a problem between law enforcement and news media, even back then.


By then things were changing on the street. The drug culture hit, and policing got a lot more challenging.


In some cities — Minneapolis, for one — police are under scrutiny for perceived or actual racism. Those stories are compelling and give rise to proper criticism of law enforcement.


So far, police racial relations in Duluth seem to be pretty positive. Maybe that reflects a tradition in the Duluth Police Department. I hope so.


For most of my life I have been acquainted with a former Duluth police chief — through family, church as youngsters and cordial relations through our adult years whenever we have crossed paths.


Back when he was chief in the ‘90s (he retired in 2002), on one sunny summer Sunday, I was in my yard mowing my lawn when he pulled over in his vehicle to say hello. Our homes were in the same neighborhood. We had a nice chat during which I asked him where he’d been all alone on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. He said he was returning from a meeting of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP.


That Duluth police chief was Scott Lyons.


I’m not aware of any change in that general attitude toward race relations by Duluth police leadership in the intervening years. Let’s hope not.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at