DULUTH – In their first trip to northeastern Minnesota, Evans Kurui of Kenya and Biruktayit Degefa of Ethiopia found the weather and North Shore Drive to their liking at the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon on Saturday morning.
Kurui, 24, led the men’s field in 1 hour, 3 minutes, 6 seconds for 13.1 miles and won $3,000 from a purse of $26,100. Degefa, 26, led all women in 1:11:26.
“It was hilly but nice. You can run fast here,” said Kurui, who lives in Iten, Kenya, and is in the United States racing through August. “We were expecting it to be very hot, but it was good.”
It was 61 degrees with overcast skies and 83 percent humidity at the 6:15 a.m. start near the Talmadge River along the North Shore.
Kurui was with four runners through 9 miles but by 12 miles was on his own. Last year’s runner-up, Weldon Kirui, 28, of Kenya was second again in 1:03:35. Simion Chirchir, 33, made it a Kenyan sweep, placing third in 1:03:45. Kevin Castille, 45, of Lafayette, La., placing fifth in 1:03:58, won the masters division. Ben Sathre, 27, of Chaska was 10th in 1:06:03.
Degefa, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., was second in the Houston Marathon on Jan. 15 and was looking for a fast race. She searched the internet and came north. Just 3 miles into the half-marathon, she had no competition and ran the last 10 miles alone.
“I was able to wave to the crowd at the finish. I wanted to say hi to everybody,” said Degefa, who grew up in Addis Ababa and is more of a marathoner, with a personal best of 2:23:51.
Kenya’s Gladys Cheboi, 27, was second, nearly three minutes back, in 1:14:20 and Kenyan Grace Kahura, 24, third in 1:14:46.
Kara Goucher, an Olympian who was raised in Duluth, was fifth in 1:15:12 and Cynthia Jerop, 22, of St. Paul was sixth in 1:16:13.
Goucher was in prime form in 2012 when setting the Garry Bjroklund Half Marathon women’s course record of 1:09:45. More recently she’s had knee surgery and suffered a hamstring pull about eight weeks ago.
The two-time U.S. Olympian got through Saturday without any problems.
“I let everyone know I wasn’t here to win. I was here to test the waters,” said Goucher, 38. “And I knew people here would be supportive no matter how I did. I loved it. It was really fun and friendly.”
What’s left in professional road racing for Goucher, one of America’s more recognized runners?
“I’m slowing down, that’s reality. But when I was younger, everything was performance-based,” she said. “Now I realize there’s more than that. I still want to run under 2:28 [in the marathon] again, and I still want to be named to another [U.S.] World Championships team.”
Goucher has sponsor contracts through 2021, which would reach into her post-40 masters division years.
“Even two or three years ago, if someone had talked to me about masters running, I might not have been open to that,” she said. “But I want to enjoy the sport for the long run and race at the highest level I can.”
Pike, McGrory triumph in wheelchair division
University of Illinois teammates Aaron Pike and Amanda McGrory won Grandma’s wheelchair titles Saturday. It was the first win in Duluth for Pike, 31, while McGrory, 31, claimed an eighth championship.
Both races had photo finishes.
Pike edged two-time men’s champion Josh George, 33, by 6 inches, with matching times of 1:29:02. McGrory beat Susannah Scaroni, 26, by the length of a wheel, each clocked in 1:40:42. All train with the University of Illinois team.
“We were side by side going over the bumps on the bricks of Superior Street and then were dodging half-marathoners,” said Pike, whose spinal cord was injured at age 13 in a hunting accident. “I train every day [with George], and we were battling today to the finish.”
McGrory was inducted into the Grandma’s Marathon Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Tami Oothoudt owns the record for wheelchair titles with 10.
Three men who have started and finished every Grandma’s Marathon, which began in 1977, continued their streaks. John Naslund, 67, of Bloomington finished in 3:52:19. Joe C. Johnson, 67, of Menominee, Mich., ran 5:05:47, and Duluth native Jim Nowak, 66, of Cornell, Wis., finished in 5:33:57.