DULUTH – The reign of Kenyan Elisha Barno came to a crashing halt Saturday morning in the 43rd Grandma’s Marathon, while budding star Nell Rojas made her mark on an ideal day along the North Shore.
The surprise men’s victor was Boniface Kongin, 29, of Iten, Kenya, who led the men’s field in 2 hours, 11 minutes, 56 seconds to earn $11,500 from a prize money purse of $100,000. Rojas, 31, from Boulder, Colo., in only her second marathon, ran the fourth-fastest women’s time in race history to win in 2:28:06. She made $20,000, including $10,000 for going faster than 2:29.
Both made their Grandma’s debut in the 26.2-mile race from south of Two Harbors to Canal Park under partly sunny skies, 50-degree temperatures and a bonus 8-mile-per-hour northeast tailwind on the first full day of summer. Perfect for the 8,571 entries.
Barno, 33, had entered each of the past four Grandma’s and won all four, the most dominant performance by an able-bodied runner in race history. Training partner Dominic Ondoro, 31, the course record holder, was also entered.
“The guys here today are fast, world class. And to beat them makes me so happy,” said Kongin, who also won the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 5 and who finished second to Barno in the 2018 Twin Cities Marathon. “My plan was to go out hard. My left hamstring was only at 75 percent and my right Achilles’ [tendon] at 60 percent, but I gambled and went for it. You never know when it might be a good day.”
Kongin’s story has many twists and turns. He arrived in town exactly two months earlier, initially to help a Duluth runner’s attempt to raise money in a 16-hour treadmill ultra run. Leg issues then caused him to stop five times on the course Saturday, yet he stayed in the lead basically from start to finish. And then he collapsed to the pavement.
Andrew Colley, 28, of Blowing Rock, N.C., was second in 2:12:13 and Uganda’s Harbert Okuti, 33, third in 2:13:01. The top Minnesotan was Matt Boumeester of Birchwood, 50th in 2:24:20. Barno finished 100th in 2:31:17, while Ondoro dropped out at 12 miles, with both having hamstring problems.
“I didn’t think I would lose, but there was nothing I could do to stop the [hamstring] pain,” Barno said.
Waiting until age 30 to try a marathon is unconventional, but Rojas traveled that rout, trying the distance last year, placing seventh in the California International in Sacramento in 2:31:23. Her goal Saturday was to reach the 2020 Olympic qualifying standard of 2:29:30. No problem.
“I didn’t expect to win, but I had multiple people tell me they thought I could win,” said Rojas, a Northern Arizona University graduate. “My training has been so good and I know how to push myself.”
Ric Rojas said he saw running talent in his daughter at age 12, and for the past nine years he has been her coach. Ric, 67, was one of America’s top road racers in the 1970s and early 1980s, including a world-best 15K time of 43:12 at the 1981 Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, Fla.
“Nell has far exceeded anything we’ve planned, by huge margins,” he said. “I think in the next 10 years she’ll be at her best.”
Kenyan Margaret Njuguna, 35, was second in 2:33:12 and Sophie Seward, 22, of Peru, Ind., was third in 2:33:21 after finishing ninth last year. Burnsville’s Dakotah Lindwurm, 24, finished fourth in 2:34:02. Former course record holder Sarah Kiptoo, 29, of Kenya was 10th in 2:38:46.
“I could not see [Rojas] after 17 miles. I thought I might try to go with her, but if I tried I might not finish,” Njuguna said.
Following Kellen Taylor’s win last year, this marks the first time Grandma’s Marathon has had back-to-back, American-born women winners since 1993 and 1994.
East African men have won 20 of the past 24 titles in Minnesota’s oldest marathon, including 10 in a row.