Carrie Tollefson competes in the Twin Cities Marathon

The Ultimate Twin Cities Marathon Guide, According to Olympic Runner Carrie Tollefson

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Carrie Tollefson competes in the Twin Cities Marathon / Twin Cities in Motion

The Ultimate Twin Cities Marathon Guide, According to Olympic Runner Carrie Tollefson

By Andrew Parks

Ask Carrie Tollefson about her favorite places to run over the years and one of the first that springs to mind isn’t a world class track or trail where she trained for the Summer Olympics. It’s the gravel-lined Skunk Hollow loop in Dawson, Minnesota — a peaceful town of just under 1,500 people that’s about three hours west of the Twin Cities.

Carrie Tollefson reports from the Twin Cities Twilight 5000 run

Carrie Tollefson reports from the Twin Cities Twilight 5000 run

"I was so spoiled growing up,” says the cross-country star-turned-sports commentator. “I trained around these beautiful farms that were just, like, one big trail around these beautiful green spaces with beans on one side, corn on the other, and cows. It was awesome.”

While she can now be seen everywhere from ESPN to NBC and heard in the weekly podcast C Tolle Run, Tollefson is considered a living Minnesota legend for her record-setting runs in the '90s and early '00s. Outside of the six-and-a-half years she spent living in Philadelphia and competing for Villanova University, Tollefson never thought of leaving the state behind, either.

Carrie Tollefson's Runner's World cover

A Runner's World cover from 2016

"People ask me, 'Why would you come back here to train, especially as a pro, when you could have trained anywhere?'” says Tollefson. "There's just something about it; not only did I grow up in a real small community where I have so much support to this day, but Minnesota in general stuck with me when I went away."

She continues, "Once I came back here, I realized you can live in the Twin Cities and still have these wonderful places to train.”

With the 40th annual Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon on the way the weekend of Oct. 1, we thought we’d ask Tollefson what she’d recommend to fellow runners looking for local spots to hit while they’re in town, starting with some picturesque areas to sightsee and log a few miles in the lead up to the race....

Two runners on the Stone Arch Bridge

Take a run on the Stone Arch Bridge

Where to Run

The Twin Cities is a wonderful place to be. A lot of it has to do with the training for me; running is a big part of my life, and I love running here because I can go right out my door to so many different places.

If you're in downtown Minneapolis, the Stone Arch Bridge is obviously beautiful. There are all sorts of distances you can go from there because we have so many bridges. You could run on down by the river, all the way to downtown St. Paul, and see some really beautiful places along the way.

I don't think people realize that — you could be staying in downtown Minneapolis, run to downtown St. Paul, and get a Lyft back to your hotel. The road just follows the Mississippi River all the way.

Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls  / Ryan Gottsleben

Down below Minnehaha Falls is another nice little running route. There's a little soft trail that brings you out to the Mississippi, where you can skip some rocks and do whatever. It's just beautiful.

You could actually make a day out of going there, where you start in downtown Minneapolis, take the river road (West River Parkway) and stop about three or four miles later at Minnehaha Falls. Check that out, then cross the river at Ford Bridge, go down the river road again on the St. Paul side (East River Parkway) and hit Crosby Farm, which is really cool, too — a beautiful little spot. And then from there, you stay on Shepard Road to downtown St. Paul.

Biking around Bde Maka Ska, Minneapolis skyline in background

Pedal your way around the scenic Chain of Lakes near Uptown Minneapolis / Meet Minneapolis

You can also go around the lakes from downtown Minneapolis, starting at Cedar Lake. From there, you could go to Lake of the Isles or skip it and go straight to Bde Maka Ska, Harriet and Nokomis. And then from Nokomis, you can head to Minnehaha Falls and East or West River Parkway.

It's all one big loop. There are so many great places to train and sightsee here.

If you look at the Twin Cities Marathon course, you'll actually see how many of those lakes you'll run around. And then if you do the TC 10-mile course, that will help you learn how to navigate from Minneapolis to St. Paul on bike or on foot.

Stand up paddle boarding around Lake of the Isles

Paddling through Lake of the Isles in prime fall season 

Where to Unwind

The other thing I really love to do with kids, or my husband on a date night, is canoe or paddleboard on Lake of the Isles. If you do it late in the day, you can be a little creepy and look inside people's houses and imagine someone else's life for a little bit.

Not in their windows, of course; from afar. We don't take binoculars or anything. We just dream about being in those beautiful homes. And then you can eat in Uptown [Minneapolis] or do whatever. It's a pretty cool spot.

A lot of people will actually bike to the lake, jump in a boat, and then bike home. It really is such an active city — or cities. You see so many people doing things year round, even; like they'll get their fat tire bikes out in the winter.... It's really cool that way.

La Grolla

La Grolla

Where to Eat 

We have such good places here to eat and have fun. People are super active so we can enjoy it a little bit more. Not that you need to reward yourself with food, but I like to!

I love going anywhere in Uptown or downtown, but one of my staples is La Grolla on Selby in St. Paul. As an athlete who craves carbs, I can't get enough of it. It's really our jam — our place.

They make their own pasta, so it's fresh and just tastes great. They also have very rich sauces, which I love. A lot of times we'll have, like, five cheese ravioli with three cheese pasta. It's so quiet, too; there's a cool ambiance. A lot of people are going to the theater [nearby], so you can people watch a little bit while eating really good food. And they give you good-sized portions, which for me is huge. Being a runner, I'm hungry all the time, so I like places that taste really good and serve lot so I can be full and maybe have some leftovers.

Highland Grill

Highland Grill

The marinated pork shoulder at Bar La Grassa is so good. I love meat, and I love knowing it comes from somewhere really good. You won't forget it; you'll go there and then you'll be like, 'Oh, I can taste it right now, just thinking about it.'

We also like a lot of the Blue Plate restaurants. They're close to our neighborhood, so we will just venture down to Highland Grill, which is a great place to eat. They have all-day breakfast, which a lot of runners like. It's right in our little village, and we're going to be satisfied.

If you haven't gotten the theme, if it doesn't taste good for me, I'm not going back. I need to love what I eat, and there has to be a good amount of it.

Surly Brewing Co

Pulling a pint at Surly / Brian Wheeler

It's ironic; a lot of the places I'm talking about are along the course. Longfellow Grill is right around the 15-mile mark of the marathon, and Highland Grill is just a mile off where you would turn by Minnehaha Falls.

Speaking of Minnehaha Falls, they have a restaurant called Sea Salt that's open seasonally. (Ed. note Its last day this year is Sunday, Oct. 9.) It's really good food for just being a stand. It's so busy, yet pretty quick. A lot of people will just go have a drink and sit down there, but for me — someone that doesn't drink — I usually have the ice cream. They have Sebastian Joe's, which is a Minnesota company.

I think there's something for everyone there. The kids like it, and you can go for a hike beforehand. Or if you have a picky eater in your family like we do, you can bring something and sit down and eat in the park.

Another place is a new food hall near the U of M called Malcolm Yards. I've only been there once, but it was really cool. There's something for everybody there, and Surly is nearby, right around Huntington Bank Stadium and the "Witch's Hat" (Prospect Park Water Tower).

Urban Roots at Mill City Farmers Market

Urban Roots at Mill City Farmers Market  / Minnesota Grown

Where to Shop

A lot of runners are used to cooking in. If you're staying in an Airbnb, I would recommend hitting up one of our farmers markets and getting something really good to make at home.

As an athlete, I like to know what I'm eating the night before [a race] and make sure it's not going to disrupt my stomach 12 hours later. Why not get some great Minnesota Grown basil and make your own quick pasta meal?

We go to the Saint Paul Farmers Market when we can, and the one in Mill City is awesome as well. You should really check out your neighborhood and see if there's something happening because we have small ones that just kind of pop up in parking lots here or there.

Mill City Running

Mill City Running 

I also love going to one of our grocery stores and buying things with the Minnesota Grown label. When our sweet corn is in season, it's pretty dang awesome, so we cook a lot of that when we can. I really appreciate knowing where we're buying our food from. My grandpa was a farmer, actually. And my other grandfather was the owner of a fertilizer company.

Growing up in farm country, it's really important for me to give back to Minnesota. Every state should do that; you should support your farmers and be thankful we have them.

As for actual stores, we have tons of running ones, including Mill City and Saint City RunningTC Running, Fleet Feet and Running Room. Some of them will even measure your feet to make sure you get the right size shoe.

Where to Survey the Scene

I highly recommend seeing the last six miles of our course before the marathon because it is the hardest part. That's where we start to climb, and there's ups and downs that get you when you don't really expect it.

To take a closer look, I would drive across Franklin Bridge — the last part of the marathon — and hit up La Grolla or a cool place in downtown St. Paul. Then just picture yourself crossing that finish line and experiencing the Twin Cities in a way that's pretty spectacular.

Even though Minneapolis and St. Paul are both huge, we still have a smaller town feel where everyone is excited to see the marathon. They get out there and they cheer for everyone. There's big parties along the way, too, which is like most big city marathons right? But there's something about it here.

I love that we have this explosion of colors on that weekend; it's usually one of the peak weekends for the fall colors. And it is just absolutely gorgeous. You know, a lot of times we have these cool, crisp mornings or starts to the race where it might even dip under 40 degrees, but by the time you're done with a marathon, it's this beautiful fall day. And it's fun to kind of hang out afterwards and make it a big weekend with people.

Andrew Parks

Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.