Two friends, out for a Sunday run.
To be honest, that's how it felt, late in Sunday's Twin Cities Marathon. As the finish line neared, the men's race had been narrowed to two friends and running partners, two men who grew up 15 kilometers away from each other in Kenya but who didn't become friends until both were living in the United States.
On Saturday night, Mbarak Hussein and Simon Sawe wondered what it would be like to finish 1-2 in the 25th Twin Cities Marathon. Sunday morning they found out. Hussein broke away from Sawe after the 25-mile mark and went on to win his second consecutive title in 2 hours, 13 minutes and 50 seconds, more than 4 minutes faster than last year -- because of both to lower humidity and tighter competition.
"They drove me to the last mile this time," said Hussein, 41, who lives and trains in Albuquerque, N.M. He won both the overall and masters division, pocketing nearly $40,000 in prize money. A year ago Hussein won by more than 2 minutes. This time the margin was 17 seconds. "I was struggling a little bit in parts, but I pulled through," he said.
This year it was Marla Runyan who came down Cathedral Hill all but alone, winning the women's race in 2:32.15, more than a minute and a half ahead of second-place finisher Mary Akor, who ran a personal-best 2:33.48.
Runyan, of Eugene, Ore., was running her first marathon since her daughter, Anna Lee, was born 13 months ago. Since then she had dealt with the rigors of being a mother while battling back and hip problems. That might explain her emotion after winning.
"On Jan. 1 I could barely run four miles, and now I just ran a marathon," said Runyan, 37, after hugging her husband and daughter. "I'm really grateful to win this race, just to finish strong. This is a very special moment for my family."
The race was run in brilliant sun on a day that started cool and crisp but quickly warmed. A triumphant day for so many was tragic for a few. George Spears, a 49-year-old runner from Minneapolis, collapsed at around the 6-mile mark and later died at Hennepin County Medical Center. It was the second death in the 25-year history of the marathon, and the first since 1989.
For the elite runners, the weather was still close to ideal by the time they entered the stretch run. For Hussein and Sawe, it was a special time. They got to know each other when Sawe came to Texas to attend Lubbock Christian after Hussein had graduated. Now, with Sawe living in Santa Fe, N.M. -- the two are an hour's drive apart -- they regularly get together for long Sunday runs.
But this one was a little more intense. Jason Lehmkuhle of Team USA Minnesota, determined to push the pace, took off in the second mile, opening a 20-second lead by the 5-mile mark. The pack caught up to him in the eighth mile, with Hussein still lagging behind as he fought a tight hamstring. By about 11 miles, Hussein, his leg finally stretched out, was with the lead group that included Lehmkuhle, Sawe, 2003 U.S. Marathon champion Ryan Shay, Faxil Bizuneh and Team USA Minnesota's Chris Lundstrom.
That group was still packed tight halfway through the race, and it was still together at about 20 miles. But, shortly thereafter, Sawe and Hussein broke out.
"I looked back and I knew it was me and him," said Sawe, 32. "It didn't matter who won, honestly."
Hussein wanted to make his move long before the finish to avoid a sprint with the younger Sawe.
"If it wasn't him maybe I could have fought," he said. "But he's Hussein. He's one of the nicest guys, one of my best friends."
For Runyan, it was a triumphant return to marathon racing. She took the lead early and never gave it up. She was leading by 36 seconds at the 10K mark, by more than a minute at the halfway point and by nearly two minutes at the 30K point, which she passed in a U.S. record-time of 1:46.42.
"I think, for me, the last 10K was really tough," she said. "I have not trained as well as I did in the past."
Runyan is legally blind and cannot see the clocks at the mile markers. She expected that there would be people at each clock yelling out the splits to the elite runners.