DULUTH - As Christopher Raabe cruised into downtown Duluth Saturday morning, the thousands of spectators lining the Grandma's Marathon course began chanting, "USA! USA!" In Canal Park, cowbells rang out near the finish line as the buzz spread among race fans: an American, and a Minnesota native, was on the cusp of winning.
Bill Raabe already knew. After finishing the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon around 8 a.m., he walked to the corner of Lake and Superior streets, where he fielded phone calls updating him on his son's progress. His wife, Julie -- listening to an Internet broadcast of the race from their home in Washington, D.C. -- told him Chris had opened up a one-minute lead. Then he stretched it to two. Then three.
His father couldn't see the finish line, but the roar confirmed that Chris Raabe had become the first American man to win Grandma's Marathon in 14 years. Raabe, 30, finished in 2 hours, 15 minutes, 13 seconds, nearly three minutes ahead of second-place Charles Kanyao of Kenya. The former cross-country runner at Sauk Rapids High School and North Dakota State took the lead around the 13-mile mark and never looked back, becoming the first American man to win the race since Mark Curp in 1995.
The last Minnesotan to win was Dick Beardsley, in 1982.
While Raabe ended one streak, Mary Akor kept another one alive. Akor battled the hot, humid weather to win her third consecutive Grandma's. Akor's time of 2:36:52 beat Alina Ivanova by six seconds.
Raabe first attended Grandma's when he was 10, watching his father run the 26.2 miles from Two Harbors to Canal Park. He hoped to run it one day, but he didn't anticipate winning.
"I just hoped to improve off of last year," said Raabe, who was sixth at Grandma's a year ago and 12th in his debut there in 2007. "If I had run faster and placed better, I would have been happy with that.
"This was one of the first marathons I came to as a kid. I always thought it would be cool to do it. Now that it's worked out, I don't think it's completely sunk in."
Raabe set a personal record and collected $10,000 for his first victory at the distance. He is a patent examiner in Washington and has run only six marathons -- choosing the distance, he joked, because he is too slow to compete in 10Ks or 5Ks.
Raabe made the state cross-country meet only once, as a senior. In college, he won only one race in conference competition. But he said he had been training well this spring, and he controlled the 33rd edition of Grandma's from the 15-mile mark.
When Raabe took the lead, he expected the other runners would be content to let him go, figuring the heat and humidity would eventually slow him. It never happened. While the Africans struggled with the weather, the Minnesotan thrived, steadily extending his lead.
He thought if he could remain in the hunt at the 20-mile mark, he might have a shot. But Raabe never felt the race was in his pocket. He refused to look over his shoulder -- doing so, he said, might have given his pursuers hope that he was faltering -- and maintained focus.
"By [mile] 15, I looked around, and I noticed a gap," he said. "I thought I might as well see what I could do and try to hold it. We weren't going too fast, and I was feeling comfortable.
"At one point, I heard someone say [the lead] was a minute. That surprised me. But a minute can evaporate very quickly. I just hoped I wouldn't completely fall apart."
So did Bill Raabe. Chris had scolded his nervous dad the day before, cautioning him not to waste all his energy. As his wife listened to the race broadcast and called with updates, Bill paced as he waited for Chris to approach the final stretch.
He finished well ahead of Kanyao, who ran 2:18:36. Fellow Kenyan David Tuwei, who trains a few months a year in Coon Rapids, was third in 2:19:49.
"I was really, really proud," said Bill Raabe, 54, who finished the half marathon in 1:25:25. "I never would have thought this would happen. He works full time, and he trains very hard. It was very exciting to see."
The Raabe family lived in Marshall and Tyler, Minn., before moving to Washington. Chris plans to go to the Boundary Waters next week with friends, then perhaps return for the Twin Cities Marathon in October. Last year, he failed to finish that race, dropping out because it was too cold.
He doesn't anticipate his Grandma's victory will vault him to professional-runner status, but he relished it just the same.
"I'm still going to work my day job," Raabe said. "But this is nice. I got lucky, and it worked out."