DULUTH - On the night before she ran the USA half marathon championships, Kara Goucher looked out the window of her room at Fitger's Inn and took in the view. "It was the best feeling in the world," said the Duluth native and two-time Olympian. "I am so proud to be from here."
Her hometown is just as proud of her, which helped power her to victory Saturday in an emotional return to the place where her career began. Goucher, 33, won the U.S. title in a women's course-record time of 1 hour, 9 minutes, 46 seconds, steadily pulling away through the second half of the race. Much of the 13.1-mile distance felt like a victory lap, as Goucher was cheered by former Duluth East classmates, neighbors, friends and relatives who came out to see her in the early-morning prelude to Grandma's Marathon.
Goucher had to remind herself she had a job to do. The race served as her final tuneup for the Olympic marathon in London on Aug. 5. She came out of it feeling well-prepared, as did fellow Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, who entered with the same objective and won the men's half marathon championship.
Abdirahman was closely shadowed by Brett Gotcher but never lost the lead, crossing the finish line in Canal Park in 1:02:46. Gotcher finished three seconds behind in 1:02:49, nipping third-place Ian Burrell, who clocked a 1:02:51. In the women's race, Maegan Krifchin ran 1:10:56 for second place, with Michelle Frey of Minneapolis third in 1:11:45.
Goucher said the race felt like a high-school reunion, with people from her past calling out to her along the route. Later in the day, she planned to attend a barbecue with some of those classmates, right after introducing her toddler son, Colt, to one of her childhood pleasures: a milkshake at Bridgeman's. With a perfect beginning already secured, that provided an equally happy ending to a day she had awaited for years.
"I've never gotten goose bumps like I got today coming down Superior Street," said Goucher, who will race the Olympic marathon for the first time after running the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Games. "This is a dream come true.
"I had to try to shut down my emotions. Every athlete dreams big dreams growing up, and for me to come home on my way to the Olympics, I couldn't ask for anything more."
Unlike many competitors who peaked for this race, Goucher did not scale back her training. She wanted to replicate the feeling of running the second half of a marathon to ensure she had a good, confidence-building test heading into the Olympics.
She got a push from Krifchin, a former Syracuse University runner. The two of them broke away from the rest of the field early, and for the first half of the race, Krifchin remained close enough that Goucher could see her shadow. "She would make a move, and I followed," Krifchin said. "I made surges, but I couldn't catch her."
As Goucher crossed the finish line, the crowd on the deck of Little Angie's cantina and the spectators who lined up four-deep along Canal Park Drive delivered a rousing ovation. Among them were her teary-eyed grandparents, her mother and other relatives who had waited 16 years to see her run again in her hometown.
Goucher said she could return next year. The USA half marathon championships will again be held before Grandma's Marathon, and if it fits in with her training schedule for the 2013 world championships, she would like to come back.
Even if she doesn't, she banked enough memories Saturday to last a while. "It was amazing," Goucher said. "I love this town so much."