DULUTH – Even a year later, Dick Beardsley is emotional about a moment he knew would come.
He was certain his Grandma’s Marathon course record, set in 1981, would inevitably fall. And when Dominic Ondoro of Eldoret, Kenya, finally broke it last year, winning in 2 hours, 9 minutes and 6 seconds, one of Beardsley’s most cherished accomplishments became a footnote.
His mark of 2:09:37 stood for 33 years in the 26.2-mile race along the North Shore. And he was on site to see the passing of the torch, working as a radio commentator.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d win at Grandma’s. It was such an honor — a Minnesota kid, in a great Minnesota race,” Beardsley said Friday. “I shed some tears last year and I’m sure some people said: “He’s crying because his record’s gone,” but honestly it was because Grandma’s is my favorite race in the world and this was a historic moment.”
Ondoro, 27, and Beardsley, 59, are back for the 39th Grandma’s Marathon set for a 7:45 a.m. start Saturday. The race runs from Two Harbors to Canal Park in Duluth. Ondoro will wear No. 1 as a race favorite in the men’s field, as he did last year, and Beardsley will be back in the pace car doing play-by-play.
A field of 7,794, about 200 fewer than 2014, is entered in Minnesota’s oldest marathon. The accompanying 25th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, starting at 6:15 a.m., has 8,358 entrants, down from a record 8,498 of 2014.
In 1981, Beardsley, from Excelsior, Minn., came to Grandma’s Marathon for the first time as an up-and-coming star, while working in a Twin Cities shoe store for Bjorklund, a track Olympian from Twig, who had won two of the first four Grandma’s titles.
“It was picture perfect for running in 1981, just like it was last year — cool temperatures and some fog,” said Beardsley, a motivational speaker and coach living in Austin, Texas.
Ondoro surged at 19 miles and sped away from a pack to win by almost three minutes. Beardsley was one of the first to congratulate him.
“It was more important to me to break the record than to win last year,” Ondoro, who trains in Santa Fe, N.M., said Friday. “I think I can run faster [Saturday].”
He has a personal best of 2:08:00.
Women’s course record holder Sarah Kiptoo, 25, also of Eldoret, is among the favorites Saturday. She won in 2:26:32 in 2013, breaking the 2:27:05 mark of Russian Fira Sultanova, set in 2003. Kiptoo was third in the 2014 Grandma’s in 2:34:55
“I’m hoping to do better [than 2013]. I feel ready to break my record,” said Kiptoo, who has a daughter, age 11, and son, 9.
The youngest women’s entrant is Alana Hadley, 18, of Charlotte, N.C., who graduated from high school on Sunday. She’s the second-youngest qualifier in U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials history, already with a personal best of 2:38:44, set last year in Indianapolis. The 2016 Olympic Trials for women and men are Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.
Hadley began accepting race prize money and sponsorships at age 16, thus joining the professional ranks. That made her ineligible for high school and college competition. She’ll attend North Carolina Charlotte this fall.
The name of her blog: Alana Hadley — Growing up Fast.
“I plan to run full out on Saturday,” said Hadley, who dropped out at 19 miles in the 2014 Grandma’s with a hip injury.
The world’s best women’s wheelchair racer, Tatyana McFadden, 26, of Clarksville, Md., is entered Saturday.
Rain almost certain
Grandma’s Marathon has delayed its start twice to allow rain to pass through the Duluth area, and thus keep racers from getting soaked. There may be no such luck Saturday, with a predicted rain chance of 70 percent in the early morning, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s.
“We’re going to get wet,” said executive director Jon Carlson.
The race will be run regardless of rain, but lightning is another matter. If the marathon and half marathon get underway and lightning develops, Carlson said he and Shane Bauer (the executive director for the 2016 races), along with the Grandma’s board of directors would discuss options. It’s possible the races could be canceled and buses would be sent to collect runners on the course.
Grandma’s Marathon has had three straight ideal race days in 2012, 2013 and 2014 with temperatures ranging from the 40s to the 60s. Last year an amazing 99.7 percent of the marathon starters finished, while 99.9 percent of the half marathoners finished.
“Being from the Midwest, I’d rather run in the rain than a blizzard,” said Team USA Minnesota runner Josh Dedering, 24, of Minneapolis, who grew up in Neenah, Wis., and ran for Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Some of my better performances have come in the rain. I enjoy it.”
Dedering is making his marathon debut Saturday.