DULUTH – Somewhere around the halfway mark of Grandma’s Marathon, Sarah Kiptoo’s brain briefly questioned what her legs were doing. She glanced at her watch to see a time of one hour, 11 minutes, a pace she wasn’t sure she could maintain.
But she couldn’t make herself slow down, either — and her legs won out, carrying the Kenyan to victory Saturday in a women’s course-record time of 2:26:32. Kiptoo led a parade of countrywomen across the finish line, getting there nearly four minutes ahead of second-place Doreen Kitaka, who trains with Coon Rapids’s Duma Runners Club. Kitaka finished in 2:30:21, while defending champion Everlyne Lagat was third in 2:33:27.
With a bouquet of roses in her lap, Kiptoo beamed after running only the fifth marathon of her career. Her maiden voyage at Grandma’s beat Fira Sultanova’s 2003 record by 33 seconds and earned her $10,000 for the victory, plus a $10,000 bonus for running faster than 2:29 and a new car.
“I say, ‘It’s too fast,’ ” Kiptoo, 23, said of her time through the first 13.1 miles. “But then I say, ‘I don’t care. You have to go.’ Because when I slow, I can die, so I say, ‘Let me keep going.’
“I was feeling very good, very strong. I am still new [to the marathon], and now, I believe in myself.”
Kiptoo has been training since December at altitude in Santa Fe, N.M. While many runners do not like to be alone on the lead, she said she prefers to race that way.
She led from start to finish and felt she was capable of running a personal-best time soon after finishing the first mile in 5:23. Just past the six-mile mark, she had a 46-second lead over Kitaka, Lagat and four other runners. Six weeks ago, Kiptoo ran the fastest time of her brief marathon career as she won the Cleveland Marathon in 2:33:42; Saturday, she crossed the halfway point six seconds faster, and she said she felt comfortable the entire way.
Lagat finished in the top three for the fourth consecutive year despite a hamstring injury that forced her to cut back her training. She spent the past three weeks trying to make up for the lost time, but she worried about reinjuring herself if she went out too fast Saturday.
“I didn’t want to hurt something and not finish,” said Lagat, 32, who won Grandma’s last year after finishing second in 2011 and third in 2010. “I had to warm up and then pick up the pace. If I didn’t catch her, that was fine. I’m happy.”
Kiptoo praised the weather, the course and the supportive crowd, which she said made her feel like she could fly. She was thrilled with the prize money, too. She has 10 siblings in Kenya and will use the winnings to help support her family.
“You feel very strong when you hear [the spectators] say, ‘You are a fast lady! Go! Go!’ ” Kiptoo said. “I had a good feeling.”