DULUTH – Losing by less than a second last year was motivation enough for Kenyan Macdonard Ondara as he returned for the 26th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon on Saturday.
By six miles of the 13.1-mile race, he pulled free from a record starting field of 9,577 and went on to win in 1 hour, 3 minutes, 33 seconds along North Shore Drive. The 31-year-old Ondara, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., won $3,000. A year ago, Kenya native and U.S. citizen Shadrack Biwott edged Ondara by less than a second in the closest finish in race history.
"That was discouraging. I wanted to win that race, but it was raining and my shoes became a little slippery," Ondara said Saturday. "My plan was to come back and win it. I was ready and I won."
Ondara ran early with Zambia's Jordan Chipangama, but Chipangama dropped back near the 10-kilometer mark and Ondara was on his own the rest of the way. It was partly sunny and 61 degrees, with 88 percent humidity at the start.
Suehiro Ishikawa, 36, of Saitama, Japan, made his Garry Bjorklund debut by placing second in 1:04:02. Chipangama, 27, was third in 1:04:49.
Ishikawa has been selected to run the marathon for Japan in the 2016 Summer Olympics on Aug. 21 in Rio de Janeiro. The top Minnesotan was Ben Sathre, 26, of Chaska and Team USA Minnesota, fifth in 1:05:18.
Simegn Abnet Yeshanbel, 30 of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, won the women's title in 1:13:21 in her first time on the course. She also won $3,000. Kenyan Hellen Jemutai was second in 1:31:21 and Kimi Reed, 28, of Springfield, Mo., was third in 1:15:43.
Yeshanbel's race followed the same theme as the men's event. She found herself alone by the four-mile mark.
"This is a nice course but my time was slow. I think I can run faster but I didn't many competitors," Yeshanbel, who won the Carlsbad (Calif.) Half Marathon on Jan. 17 in 1:11:31, said through an interpreter.
Minnesota Duluth professor Mona Stockhecke, 32, of Germany was fourth in 1:16:29. She studies climate change for the school's Large Lakes Observatory.
The half-marathon had a race-record 7,919 finishers, breaking the mark of 7,296 in 2014. The 7,423 marathon finishers topped the mark of 6,967 in 2007.
The smile on the faces of Brazil's Aline dos Santos Rocha and Maria de Fatima were unmistakable after placing 1-2 in the Grandma's Marathon women's wheelchair race. They came to Minnesota for the first time in a final attempt to qualify for Brazil's marathon team in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in their home country, starting Sept. 7 in Rio de Janeiro.
They needed to finish in 1:49 or faster.
Rocha, 25, won in 1:41:39 and Fatima, 25, was second in 1:41:41. They earned the final two spots on the Brazilian team.
"I've missed qualifying in many other races and I knew this was the last chance," Rocha, who won $2,000, said through an interpreter.
"This was the best race of my life. The best," said de Fatima, who improved her personal best by more than 40 minutes.
James Senbetta of Champaign, Ill., slowed by injury and five sinus infections in the past year, won the men's title in 1:27:10. Former Grandma's champion Rafael Jimenez, 37, of Spain was second (1:27:43) for a third straight year.
It was a hot one
Saturday's warm, humid conditions contributed to "the busiest day we've seen in a while," Grandma's medical director Ben Nelson told the Duluth News Tribune.
There were 369 people treated at the finish line medical tent, an increase from 184 in 2015. It was 198 in 2014. One of the highest numbers in recent years was 577 in 2009, on another hot morning.
• Shane Bauer, 39, presided over his first Grandma's Marathon as executive director, taking the reins from Duluthian Jon Carlson, who retired from the position in 2015, although was coaxed back into the office as race director. Former executive director Scott Keenan, who headed the event from its beginning through 2013, returned to hold the finishing banner for the men's and women's marathon winners.
• Winning masters titles, for those 40 and over, were Benjamin Meto, 41, of Kenya in 2:21:59 and Jenny Schulze, 43, of Clive, Iowa, in 2:46:25. Former Grandma's champion Christopher Kipyego, 42, of Kenya ran 2:26:17.
• Three men continued streaks of finishing every Grandma's Marathon, now at 40 straight, starting in 1977: John Naslund, 66, of Bloomington, in 4:37:14; Joe C. Johnson, 66, of Menominee, Mich., in 5:23:34; and Duluth native Jim Nowak, 65, of Cornell, Wis., in 5:34:50.