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Meet Twin Cities Marathon Founder Jack Moran

Updated: May 14

By Bruce Brothers

(Just arrived from The Connection? Click here to continue the story where you left off.)

One trait needed to run a marathon is doggedness; Jack Moran has that in abundance.

Not many who line up to run the annual Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon each October are aware that Moran, who lives in Edina with his wife of 69 years and turns 90 on April 24 was the man who either hurdled or busted down obstacle after obstacle to found the Twin Cities Marathon in 1982.

In the aftermath, Moran gazed at a landscape surrounded by colorful autumn foliage along the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Creek, four Minneapolis lakes and stately properties on Summit Avenue and christened it “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America.”

However, guiding the marathon from proposal to reality was no jog in the park.

“There were some battles to be fought,” remembered Charlie Quimby recently. But Moran, Quimby added with a chuckle, was “persistent.”

Some others in those days preferred words like stubborn or unyielding.

Moran was then president of the Minnesota Distance Running Association (now Run Minnesota) and Quimby, who these days splits his time between Minnesota and Colorado, was vice president. The MDRA conducted the area’s longtime marathon — the City of Lakes, on a limited course that circled Minneapolis lakes Harriet and Bde Maka Ska (then Calhoun) four times. The Twin Cities’ largest chain of running stores, Garry Bjorklund Sports (later GBS), decided to put on a point-to-point 26.2-miler in St. Paul, also in the fall.

Said Moran: “That made no sense.”

He proposed to the MDRA board that they get behind a marathon through both of the Twin Cities.

“It didn’t go very well,” he recalled.

More than 43 years ago, the running boom was just gaining traction; motorists didn’t like the prospect of runners taking over the streets, prize money could only be referred to as “developmental funds” so athletes could maintain amateur status, and the MDRA considered itself a purist organization for weekend joggers and aspiring elite runners alike.

Large amounts of money had only begun to creep into running.

“We were in it for the love of the sport,” Quimby recalled.

That’s a good thing, because Moran worked countless hours without pay breathing life into the concept of a Twin Cities 26.2-miler, then countless more hours without pay in his first year as the race director once the seed sprouted (he drew a salary beginning in 1983).

Besides a lack of enthusiasm from the MDRA, Moran faced an uphill challenge from the city of St. Paul. The city’s parks and recreation department loved its brand-new marathon on a circular course starting and finishing downtown. Fortunately for Moran’s cause, Steve Hoag of GBS, who served as race director of the St. Paul Marathon, recognized that Moran’s concept had greater potential and offered moral support.

St. Paul officials, on the other hand, were unwilling to sign on unless Moran’s event covered 13 miles in each of the Twin Cities. No problem; Moran veered off course to add mileage near Highland Park Golf Course. There were additional stipulations regarding pre-race expos and official hotels, none of which proved deal-breakers for Moran.

Using doggedness, determination and details, he (and a handful of supporters) figured out both literally and figuratively how to connect the dots: He actually calculated miles for the course by laying a piece of string on a Rand McNally road map.

Money, of course, was an issue, too, but an article in the Minneapolis Tribune helped Moran lure the first two major sponsors — Pillsbury Foods and WCCO Radio — and Scandinavia Today stepped in to pay some travel expenses for a few world-class runners.

After a stressful incubation, Moran’s proposal suddenly (but not surprisingly) gathered the momentum of a racer barreling down St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill.

“As the summer drew on, local runners started getting really excited about the race,” Moran wrote in 1983. “We had our first thousand entries by the end of June, and our second thousand less than a month later.”

Sponsors began to step forward with donations of bananas, apples and even cash. It wasn’t enough to offset a first-year deficit of $17,000, but the Twin Cities Marathon was off and running.

Moran looks back on his pre-race struggles of 1981 as “a war,” and now admits that he sometimes might have appeared prickly. In that vein, his difficulties involving the marathon were not over. Five years after the inaugural race, the marathon board (that he created) ordered him to stay mum about a pending appeal from one of the competing athletes, but Moran couldn’t do it when a person he knew from the media called.

“I did not know how to say, ‘No comment.’” he remembered. It might not have been the first time he stepped on the toes of a board member, but it was the last. “The next  thing I knew, I was fired,” he said. Moran mentioned with a head-shaking asterisk that a runner approached him soon after to remind him that she had given up her number that summer because the field was full and she was injured, but when she recovered sooner than expected, she sought her number back. Moran’s response? “No.”

“She said, ‘I’m glad you got fired.’”

Moran was known as a stickler for rules and details, Quimby observed. “He was an aerospace engineer. You don’t get to invent stuff on the fly when you’re putting airplanes in the air.” To the point of being abrasive? “He could be,” Quimby noted, “but it’s abrasive people who don’t do stuff who drive me up a wall. Jack did stuff.”

That incident is not Moran’s favorite memory, but retirement has left him looking back on a fulfilling life.

A native of New York City whose mother died when he was in elementary school and whose father died when he was in high school, Moran early on developed perseverance. He earned a scholarship, later sneaked some of his scholarship money into a fund to purchase an engagement ring, then got married, graduated from Cornell and became a professor of aerospace engineering there. A few years later he and his wife, Jane, moved to Minnesota for a job teaching aerospace engineering at the U of M, but working and smoking and raising a family that grew to six kids in the 1960s left Moran feeling the need to lose some pounds.

A fellow instructor suggested running.

“I think I almost made it around the football field,” Moran said with a laugh. “But I got so I liked it.”

From a 3:20 finish in his first marathon at Bald Eagle Lake in about 1970 (the site of the Land O’ Lakes marathon — the City of Lakes’ predecessor), Moran lowered his marathon time to a personal record 2:46 in 1980 in Eugene, Ore. He was running his best times in 1979 and ’80 when he knocked off a 10K PR at Get In Gear one spring, but when he checked the official results, his name was missing. Foreshadowing his ability to address problems, he employed some available aerospace engineering computers at the U of M to link his grasp of numbers with his racing experience to forge a race scoring system.

“He was just on the leading edge of that technology,” Quimby remembered.

That solution, which evolved into Apple Raceberry Jam, enabled Moran to eventually discard teaching in favor of producing race results and statistics for the sport he loved. It also gave him a livelihood after he was dismissed from the marathon.

After getting his fledgling race results business operating — and as the now “embarrassed” leader of the state’s leading running organization — Moran’s immediate order of business was quelling the metropolitan area’s dueling marathons.

Now, 42 years down the road and 90 years old, Moran has mountains of memories to relish including witnessing one of his daughters, Eileen Moran Griggs, win a 55-59 age-group award at the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon just a couple of years ago.

Not much, however, can surpass that moment of Oct. 3, 1982, when nearly 4,000 runners (who paid $6 early or $10 the final two weeks) queued up for “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America.” As the field surged forward with a lusty cheer, heading from downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul where 3,511 would finish, the magnitude of his accomplishment hit Moran.

“I burst into tears,” he said.

Photo by Bruce Brothers.

This article originally appeared in the The Connection, TCM's weekly e-newsletter. Subscribe here. Find more Inspirational Stories here.


Bruce Brothers spent most of his 45-year sportswriting career at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Tribune, where he wrote running columns for both. A veteran of more than 65 marathons and longer who ran his best marathon at Grandma's in 1980 and nearly matched that at the St. Paul Marathon in 1981, Brothers is retired and lives with his partner, Denise Dohrmann, in Minneapolis. He still runs several times a week.


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