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If they handicapped Grandma’s Marathon the way they do horse races, the heavy odds would be that the first man to finish the 26.2-mile run down the North Shore from Two Harbors at about 10 a.m. Saturday will be a slender guy from Kenya.
That is not to demean any Ethiopians, or any of the Kenyans or Ethiopians who now claim the U.S. as home, but make yourself a list that includes: Weldon Kirui, Betram Keter, Elisha Barno, Abraham Chelanga, Jacob Cherntai, Mathew Kiplagat, and Kimutai Cheruiyot.
Those seven men are among the top “hired guns,” those skilled distance runners who can attract sizable amounts of money to come in and dazzle everyone at your favorite marathon. There are others, but these Magnificent 7 have a few things in common: All from Kenya, all range in age between 27 and and 33, and all have run personal best marathon times between the 2:08.43 of Chelanga and the 2:12.09 of Kiplogat.
That includes the 2:09:45 clocking of Elisha Barno when he won Grandma’s last year, when his effort fell short of the year-old record set by Dominic Ondoro at 2:09:06. It was Ondoro, in 2014, who broke the 33-year-old record held by Minnesotan Dick Beardsley for the Grandma’s course.
And it returned Grandma’s to its historic position where a couple of white Minnesota guys held records that remain mind-boggling to this day, and to this weekend’s 40th annual running of the event. Back in 1977, Garry Bjorklund, from the Duluth and Proctor suburb of Twig, won the first Grandma’s with a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 54 seconds. He came back a veteran runner in 1980 and won the fourth Grandma’s with a stunning 2:10:20 time. At the time, none of us knew how stunning that was.
One year later, Beardsley ran an intense duel with Bjorklund down Superior Street and had to go all out to escape Bjorklund’s threat to win. In doing so, Beardsley clocked a 2:09:37. We didn’t know how good that was, either, but as the years passed, we learned. That time stood for 33 years as the Grandma’s standard, and Bjorklund’s 2:10:20 from 1980 stood as the second fastest time.
Two years ago, the inevitable happened, and Ondoro broke away from the pack and ran easily to his 2:09:06 victory to shatter the record. Ondoro was full of confidence last year that he would break his own year-old mark, but he couldn’t do better than 2:11:17 – eighth best all time. Barno won it, but his 2:10:38 is “only” fourth best, behind Ondoro, Beardsley and Bjorklund, and ahead of Elly Rono, the 2002 winner at 2:10:57.
That means the top five winning times are all under 2:11, and they are the only winners to get under 2:11. While Beardsley and Bjorklund are white guys from Minnesota, Ondoro, Barno and Rono are all slim, black, built-for-speed racers from Kenya.
Maybe Ondoro’s record will fall on Saturday, but it sounds like it might be too hot for record runs. Doesn’t really matter if it’s broken, now that we know it’s possible to break it. Just remember, this year’s winner might be from Ethiopia, but if you jot down the names of those seven Kenyans at the top of this column, my guess is you will have the winner and perhaps half of the top 10.
All those numbers and colons however serve no better purpose than to stress how rare it is and how long it took for any of the contemporary superstars of distance running to overtake the sensational finishing times of Dick Beardsley and Garry Bjorklund.