DULUTH – Fatigue didn't stop Elisha Barno from a record-setting day at Saturday's 41st Grandma's Marathon.
His flight, delayed from Tuesday to Thursday, meant traveling from Nairobi, Kenya, to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Duluth, arriving at 5 p.m. Friday. That was just 15 hours before the start of the 26.2-mile race along the North Shore from Two Harbors to Canal Park.
No matter. Barno, 31, from Eldoret, Kenya, shook off his final challenger — Geoffrey Bundi, in his marathon debut — at 22 miles and won a third straight Grandma's Marathon men's title in 2 hours, 12 minutes, 8 seconds.
The three victories in a row set a mark for supremacy.
Five other men had two championships in race history: Garry Bjorklund (1977, 1980), Dick Beardsley (1981, 1982), Doug Kurtis (1989, 1993), Patrick Muturi (1996, 1997) and Wesly Ngetich (2005, 2007).
"I was feeling very tired at the start. I was worried. There were so many good runners in the race, so many Kenyans," said Barno, who won the 2017 Los Angeles Marathon on March 19. "But the marathon is about preparation and doing long runs. I was prepared. I said, 'I will trust myself. I'm going to make it.' I'm very happy because I could win this race three times."
Hellen Jepkurgat, a 36-year-old Kenyan in her first Grandma's Marathon, won the women's division in 2:32:09. She and Barno won $11,500 each from a purse of $100,000.
There were 6,695 starters from a registered field of 8,727 in Minnesota's oldest marathon. For the 7:45 a.m. start it was calm under cloudy skies with 64 degrees. Yet, the sun broke through and temperatures rose slightly during the race. Humidity (83 percent) was the major issue.
Barno's most notable opponent was Bundi, an unknown wearing No. 40. A large group of front-runners was together through about 17 miles, then it was three — Barno, Bundi and third-place finisher Macdonard Ondara, 28, of Kenya, who ran 2:14:42.
"I told myself I had to try to push the pace. It was too slow, it was a 2:14, 2:15 [finish projection]," said Barno, married and the father of daughters ages 8 and 5.
Finally, it was Barno and Bundi, who is from Nyamira, Kenya, and trains in Zacatecas, Mexico. At an aid station near the 22-mile mark, facing the daunting Lemon Drop Hill, Bundi was unable to find his elite runner water bottle and ended up zigzagging across London Road to find fluid. He lost contact with Barno.
"I had to slow down then," said Bundi, runner-up in the 2014 San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in 1 hour and 28 seconds. "I was expecting to run under 2:10. It was a hard race."
With the Kenyan 1-2-3 sweep, East African runners have now won 18 of the past 22 Grandma's Marathon men's titles, and eight straight. Barno has entered the race three times and won three times, clocking 2:10:28 in 2015 and 2:11:26 in 2016.
Former champion Christopher Kipyego, 43, a Kenyan, won the 40-and-older masters division, fifth overall in 2:15:14. Matthew Schmitz, 40, of Woodbury was the first Minnesotan, 24th in 2:24:45.
East African women have won eight straight Grandma's Marathon championships.
Jepkurgat and Askale Merachi, 30, of Ethiopia dueled during the last hour of the race. With about 6 miles remaining, Jepkurgat took a slight lead and held on to win by 16 seconds. Merachi, in her first race in Duluth, was second in 2:32:25.
"I tried over and over to get close. I'd get close and then fall back, and then try again [during the closing miles]," Merachi, from Addis Ababa, said through interpreter Eleni Birhane. "I liked the weather, I liked the course. I tried, but there wasn't any more I could do."
Jepkurgat is self-coached and has no training partners yet has now won two marathons in 2017, including the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:34:23.
"Ohhhh, I was tired," said Jepkurgat, shaking her head. "My body feels good, but that was a lot of sun. I wasn't expecting that. It was humid and a lot of sun."
Ethiopian Serkalem Abrha, 30, placed third in 2:34:08. The top American was Lindsey Scherf, 30, of Scarsdale, N.Y., fifth in 2:35:02. Three-time Grandma's Marathon women's champion Mary Akor, 40, of Hawthorne, Calif., was 11th in 2:53:34 as the 40-and-older winner.
Samantha Sunstrom, 22, of Sauk Rapids was the top Minnesota women's finisher, 14th in 2:55:08.