He had never run the distance before, but that didn’t stop Tyler Pennel from thinking big. Based on his recent success in the half-marathon — and on the field of peers he would face in the Twin Cities Marathon — he predicted he would have a good chance to win in his first attempt at 26.2 miles.
Pennel kept that thought in the back of his mind Sunday, when the hills of Summit Avenue began to test his confidence. After surging to the lead at mile 21, he wasn’t sure what was happening behind him — or what might lie ahead.
“It was scary,” he said. “I got to the top of the hills, and I was running as fast as I could. I just kept pushing and pushing, hoping they wouldn’t catch me in the last mile.”
No one came close. Pennel, 26, widened his gap over the final miles, turning the homestretch into a victory lap as he won the 33rd edition of the race in 2 hours, 13 minutes, 32 seconds. He still looked fast and fresh when he raised his arms in triumph at the finish line, leading a record 8,867 finishers through the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul on a 37-degree morning.
Pennel lives in North Carolina and trains in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he built the stamina to handle the hills that thinned out his competition. Jared Ward finished second in 2:14:00, with Scott Smith third in 2:14:40. Esther Erb won the women’s division and U.S. title in 2:34:01.
“I set the goal to come out here and go for the win,” said Pennel, who earned $26,500 for the victory. “I was hoping to run 2:12 or 2:13. But hey, I won. I’m not going to complain.”
Pennel chose to make his debut in Minnesota, rather than at the more high-profile fall marathons in Chicago and New York, because he believed he could reach another milestone in a career that has taken off over the past two years. A Colorado native, Pennel attended Western State College in his home state and won an NCAA Division II title in the 10,000 meters in 2012.
He finished in the top 10 in four national championship races last year. After a fourth-place performance in the U.S. half-marathon championships in January — with a head-turning time of 1:01:44 — Pennel just missed a national 10K title on July 4 when he was outrun in the last 400 meters.
Sunday, he started out in a pack of 15 runners that set a conservative pace. With parents Larry and Chris Pennel watching from the lead trolley, Pennel took turns with rivals including Sean Quigley, Ian Burrell and Smith at the head of the group as it clocked about 5:15 per mile over the first part of the course.
The chilly weather didn’t diminish the crowds, though some outdoor partiers gathered around fire pits and mittens muffled their applause. By the time the leaders reached Lake Nokomis, the group had dwindled to nine runners waiting to see who would make the first bold move.
“I don’t think anyone was willing to be the sacrificial lamb,” Smith said. “So everyone just bunched up. It made for a fun race, because you looked around and thought, ‘Any one of these guys could take it to the finish.’ ”
Smith said he got impatient at the 20-mile mark, feeling strong enough to pick up the pace and try to break loose from the field. Pennel proved stronger, despite his momentary doubts. He could not hear anyone behind him, he said, and had no idea how far back his competitors were.
They only got farther away, ensuring he would finally earn the championship he coveted.
“I just said, ‘Get relaxed, stay relaxed and get to 20 miles,’ ” Pennel said. “That’s when the hills start, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
“I was five seconds from winning a title last summer, so I wanted to come here and win. This was the goal.”