DULUTH - The day before Grandma's Marathon, Lamech Mokono predicted something special was going to happen along the way from Two Harbors to Duluth. "I am ready to go,'' said the Kenyan, who won the race in 2008. "We can do something great.''
Mokono expected some of his fellow Africans would run with him Saturday in pursuit of a course record. Instead, they hung back -- and Mokono saw his hopes of winning dashed at the 22-mile mark. His two-man race with Berhanu Girma turned into a one-man race when Mokono took a gulp of water that went out through his nose, slowing him enough to allow Girma to run off for the victory in the 36th edition of the race.
Girma, 25, finished in 2 hours, 12 minutes, 25 seconds. That was the eighth-fastest winning time in Grandma's history, but it fell well short of Dick Beardsley's record of 2:09:37 set in 1981. Fellow Ethiopian Chala Lemi was second in 2:12:58, and Mokono finished third in 2:13:28.
Chris Erichsen of Minneapolis was the top American, earning ninth place in 2:16:31.
The thunderstorms that were forecast did not materialize during the race, though the gathering clouds held temperatures around 60 degrees. Despite the cool air, high humidity caused some discomfort among the 5,980 runners who started the race -- and rain came down on those who finished in the early afternoon.
Mokono thought conditions were ripe for a course record, and he was irritated that no one pushed the pace. Girma stood by the strategy that earned him his first victory at the 26.2-mile distance and a winner's check of $11,500.
"It was part of my game plan,'' Girma said through an interpreter. "I wanted to be one step back. I didn't want to take the lead.
"I thought I would put up a good fight, but I never thought I would [win]. I'm very happy.''
Girma was bothered by abdominal pain through much of his Grandma's Marathon debut. That prevented him from running the time he wanted, though he still finished with a personal record.
He and Mokono were part of a lead pack of about 16 runners early in the race, which dwindled to seven at the 12-mile mark. Mokono thought the group of Kenyans and Ethiopians would push him on the lead, but they did not. By mile 19, Mokono and Girma had broken loose in front.
A leg cramp had begun troubling Mokono, and Girma had taken a slight lead just before the water station at Lemon Drop Hill. Mokono said the water that went into his mouth ended up in his nose and almost caused him to collapse. As much as that annoyed him, he was just as irked by the reticence of his fellow runners.
"I'm not happy with the guys,'' he said. "They are elite runners, so why are they running like cowards? I expected us to work together. We could have run a course record, but nobody wanted to run with me.''