DULUTH – Once he saw the weather forecast, Bazu Worku said, he knew he was going to win Grandma’s Marathon. The Ethiopian felt so certain he would top the field that his ambition Saturday was to break a course record that had lasted 32 years.
He got his victory, but the only facet of the weather that was not to his liking — the wind — left him short of his goal. On a foggy, misty, 46-degree morning, the 22-year-old Worku raced in a large pack until the 19-mile mark. At the bridge over the Lester River, he sprinted away from all of them, opening a wide lead and repelling Ernest Kebenei’s strong final push to win in two hours, 11 minutes, 14 seconds.
Kebenei, of Kenya, finished 32 seconds behind Worku. Another Kenyan, Eliud Ngetich, was third in 2:12:00. Michael Reneau of St. Paul was the top American, finishing ninth in 2:13:53.
A total of 5,613 people completed the 26.2-mile race from Two Harbors to Duluth, with late-morning rain falling on many as they crossed the finish line in Canal Park. The temperatures were the coldest for the race since 2000.
An exceptionally strong men’s field was expected to challenge the course record set by Dick Beardsley in 1981. Though Sarah Kiptoo broke the women’s course record with a winning time of 2:26:31, Worku fell short of Beardsley’s mark of 2:09:37, recording the fifth-fastest time in the race’s history. After raising his arms in victory as he strode down Canal Park Drive — and blowing kisses to a bundled-up crowd — he said a 14-miles-per-hour wind was the difference between a good day and a great one.
“My main goal coming here was to set the record,” Worku said through an interpreter. “I was sure I was going to win the race and was very confident. I tried to go for the record, but the wind was very difficult, so I settled for the win.”
Worku entered the 37th running of Grandma’s Marathon with a personal-best time of 2:05:25, the fastest of any entrant in the race’s history. The day before the race, he said he felt capable of running a 2:03 at his first Grandma’s.
Beardsley fully expected to relinquish a record that is a decade older than Worku. A late entrant, Worku committed to run Grandma’s last week, six months after winning the Houston Marathon in his American debut. Several other runners in the field also boasted impressive personal bests at the distance, leading to predictions of a fast race.
But none of them wanted to push the pace early, as a group of 18 hung together and raced conservatively.
“I was surprised,” Kebenei said. “Everyone was just waiting.”
Worku said he wanted to separate from the pack right from the start. But the wind in his face bothered him, and he decided to hang back until he approached Mile 19. He collected $10,000 for the victory and another $2,000 for running faster than 2:12.
In his last marathon, in Rotterdam in April, Worku dropped out because of an injury and then took time off. He said he was grateful to win Grandma’s, putting him back on track toward bigger things in the future.
“My aim is to win the Boston and Berlin marathons, so there is room for improvement,” Worku said. “This is a very good start.”