Bazu Worku wins Grandma's MarathonBazu Worku, the 22-year-old Ethiopian who was a late entrant into his first Grandma's Marathon, broke away from the leaders at about 19 miles and cruised to win today's 37th annual men's race in Duluth.
The weather: 55 degrees, east wind, overcast, some fog.
The men’s field: one of the best assembled in the 37 years of Grandma’s Marathon.
A course record was all but assured this morning along the North Shore.
Course record holder Dick Beardsley said it was a certainty.
Not so fast.
Overwhelming favorite Bazu Worku of Ethiopia said he never felt comfortable on a cold summer day in Duluth, yet was able to break away from a large pack over the final seven miles to win in 2 hours, 11 minutes, 14 seconds. It was the fourth-fastest time in race history but still 97 seconds from the all-time mark of 2:09:37 set on a nearly identical weather day in 1981.
“From the beginning it was hard. The weather made a difference,” Worku, in his first trip to Duluth, said through interpreter Ahmed Kemal, an Ethiopian attending St. Scholastica. “It was very cold and my body was just shivering. Even while warming up (at the start) I was cold.”
Worku won $12,000, including $2,000 for running sub-2:12. Former Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon winner Ernest Kebenei of Kenya was second in 2:11:46 for $9,500 and 19-year-old Kenyan Eliud Ngetich was third in 2:12:00 for $6,500.
Worku, 22, entered the race about two weeks ago and brought a personal best time of 2:05:25, run three years ago in Berlin, and won his first 26.2-mile race Jan. 13 at the Houston Marathon in 2:10:17 in nasty, rainy conditions. He’s been training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where it has been in the mid-80s.
Instead of striking out on his own, and going after the course, as he talked about Friday, Worku was content to sit with a pack of more than 20 East African runners (along with Minnesotan Michael Reneau and Japan’s Sho Matsumoto). They were on a 2:12 pace almost from the start, going through the half marathon mark in 1:06:10. A few runners were dropped by 17 miles and a few more by 18.
“I didn’t know there was a 2:05 runner here until somebody told me during the race,” said Ngetich, in just his second career marathon after winning in Green Bay on May 19, and no relation to former two-time Grandma’s champion Wesly Ngetich. “I wanted to take the lead, but I was told to watch for (Worku) because he was really fast. I’m not that experienced in the marathon so I instead watched him.”
A tactical race became a one-person race in the blink of an eye. A lead group of 12 reached the Lester River and then simply faded into the London Road fog as Worku turned on the jets with mile splits of 4:52, 4:42, 4:42 and 4:44. He pounded up Lemon Drop Hill, just past the 22-mile mark, looked over his right shoulder a few times and saw no one.
“By the time we got to five miles I knew it wasn’t possible to reach the course record and I went for the win,” said Worku, who is 5-foot-7 and 123 pounds. “After 30 kilometers (18.1 miles), I knew I was going. I was confident.”
However, there was the matter of Kebenei, who was biding time behind the lead runners. He was the only one to pursue Worku and made up considerable ground over the final four miles, finishing 32 seconds back.
“My goal was to be in the top three and by Mile 19 I decided it was time to start running smart,” said Kebenei, a Kapsabet, Kenya, native who lives in Durango, Colo., and won the 2009 Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in a then course-record 1:05:15. “I had to drop out during the Los Angeles Marathon (March 17) and have only been back training for a month and a half. I was surprised to run so well and am so happy.”
East African runners have won 14 of the last 18 Grandma’s Marathon men’s titles, including the last four, with the last two from Ethiopia.
St. Paul’s Reneau, 35, spent some time at the lead of the lead group and ultimately placed ninth as the top American in a personal-best 2:13:53. Among those not finishing were Ethiopian Wegayehu Tefera (who wore bib No. 1) and former champion Lamech Mokono of Kenya. Former champion Chris Kipeygo, 39, of Kenya was sixth in 2:13:00.
“The weather was awesome; it was set up to be a fast day. I thought it was feasible to see Beardsley’s record broken,” said Reneau, second in the Fitger’s 5K on April 20 in downtown Duluth. “To be able to stay with the leaders boosted my spirits.”
In 1981, when Twig’s Garry Bjorklund pushed Beardsley to a course best, it was misting and 48 degrees at the Two Harbors. Beardsley, 57, now living in Austin, Texas, believed his mark would fall Saturday, and was to be in his usual spot as race commentator on ESPN Radio WEBC-AM, 560. Yet recent knee surgery kept him from his duties.
“When I ran 2:09 there was no prize money at Grandma’s. We just ran hard because of the competition,” Beardsley said Saturday. “If you don’t run hard from the start, it’s hard to break a record.”
There was a northeast tail wind of 6 mph at the start and the temperature was 54 degrees at the Canal Park finish.
From an entry field of 7,338 there were 5,763 starters and 5,613 timed finishers, just short of the 5,787 finishers in 2012.