The last thing Mohamed Hrezi wanted was to run by himself. Just past the halfway point of Sunday's Twin Cities Marathon, he realized he had no choice.
"I did not want to be alone," he said. "I was yelling at the person behind me to try to pick it up. Then, I realized that at a certain point, I just had to go"'
Though Hrezi left the rest of the field far behind, he wasn't exactly in solitude. Packs of exuberant spectators gathered alongside the course to celebrate the return of the marathon, which was canceled last year because of the pandemic. Their joyful noise — and the collective energy of more than 3,000 grateful runners behind him — helped power Hrezi to victory in a personal-best time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 22 seconds.
A former Iowa State runner who represented Libya in the 2016 Olympic marathon, Hrezi finished nearly five minutes ahead of second-place Charlie Lawrence. Lawrence, a former Gophers runner from Foley, Minn., finished in 2:20:13. Mohammed Bati of St. Paul was third in 2:21:22.
Naomi Fulton of Hartland, Wis., won the women's title in 2:45:55, ahead of two Minnesota natives who now live in Colorado. Molly Eastman of Victoria was second in 2:50:36, and Bailey Ness of Woodbury was third in 2:51:10. Eastman and Ness both ran for the Gophers.
Following last year's cancellation, the marathon did not offer prize money or travel funds this year. That sharply reduced the elite fields, and most highly seeded runners had Minnesota ties. Neither of the winners is a full-time professional athlete; Hrezi, of Philadelphia, is a brand manager for Johnson & Johnson, and Fulton is a high school math teacher and cross-country coach.
COVID-19 affected the marathon in other ways, too. The field was capped at 4,500 entries, with 3,192 finishing the race — fewer than half the 6,739 who completed the 2019 edition. Runners had to wear masks while in the starting corrals and the finish area.
Not that anyone seemed to mind. As people made their way across the finish line in St. Paul, even the pain of a 26.2-mile grind couldn't erase their smiles.
"It felt so good to be back," said Carrie Tollefson, an Olympian and NCAA champion from Dawson, Minn., who finished eighth in the women's field. "I think they did a really good job with the safety protocols. I'm just so thankful we were able to race."
Virginia Brophy Achman, executive director of race organizers Twin Cities In Motion, said Sunday's marathon had a "unique energy" after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 race. She arrived at the start line in downtown Minneapolis before dawn, as runners mingled with Vikings fans getting their tailgate parties off to an early beginning.
When an air horn signaled the start of the TC 10 Mile, which began an hour before the marathon, runners erupted in cheers. They high-fived each other as they flowed underneath a banner above Portland Avenue and stripped off their masks, adding hundreds of facial coverings to the usual roadside piles of discarded T-shirts and sweatshirts.
Though Hrezi lives in Philadelphia, he is coached by Chris Lundstrom, coach of the Minnesota Distance Elite training group. The winner of last summer's Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth, Hrezi came to the Twin Cities about a month ago to train on the marathon course.
At the 25-kilometer mark, Hrezi held a 9-second lead over Joel Reichow. Five kilometers later, the gap had swelled to 3:13, with Bati and Lawrence his closest pursuers.
With the hilly part of the course coming up, Hrezi knew it would be tough to run solo. That made him all the more grateful for what greeted him.
"The atmosphere was amazing," Hrezi said. "It's a tough course with the hills. But the crowd was screaming the entire four-mile stretch up Summit. It was rough, but I made it through."
Fulton seized the lead in the women's field near the halfway point. Though she has raced in top marathons including Boston, Chicago and the Olympic trials, she wasn't expecting to win Sunday. Like Hrezi, though, she found strength in the energy of the spectators and her fellow runners.
After the race, Fulton met up with her family, including son Quinn, 10, and daughter Amelia, 8. Instead of a winner's check, she received a medal and a giant candy bar.
On a day when her goal was simply to enjoy racing, that was enough.
"I feel so blessed that we're out here, with the beautiful scenery and the positive crowds," Fulton said. "To have that feeling again, it just makes me emotional."