C.J. Albertson did not come to his first Grandma’s Marathon with a targeted time in mind. The 27-year-old from Fresno, California, was gunning for a win, and he had a specific strategy in mind.

"I knew I was going to fade toward the end, so I was trying to break as many people as I can to get as small of a group as possible,” Albertson said. “I wanted to push faster miles to make people hurt, so that if I fall apart at the end, they do, too.”

The plan worked for the most part, leaving the rest of the men’s elite runners in the dust by the halfway point Saturday. There was one exception, however, in 35-year-old Milton Rotich of Kenya.

Running in his second Grandma’s Marathon, Rotich kept a consistent pace from start to finish to win the 45th running in 2 hours, 13 minutes, 4 seconds. He said it was his first marathon win in seven years after finishing second in the Philadelphia Marathon and fourth in the Los Angeles Marathon, both in 2019.

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“I feel surprised, I feel awesome,” said Rotich after crossing the finish line. He finished sixth at Grandma’s in 2017 in 2:16:16 and fifth in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in 2018. “I ran this in 2017 and know much about the course. You don’t have to push. The first part is fast, but you have to preserve yourself for the last part.”

Albertson said he tried to use the downhill portions of Saturday’s race to break free of Rotich, laying down a 4:45 mile at one point. The surges proved successful, until they began running uphill again. That’s when Rotich was able to reel Albertson back in.

C.J. Albertson (left) and Milton Rotich run neck-and-neck at the halfway point of Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Rotich won the race, with Albertson taking second. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
C.J. Albertson (left) and Milton Rotich run neck-and-neck at the halfway point of Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Rotich won the race, with Albertson taking second. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Rotich said he knew he could catch up to Albertson on those downhill portions.

“I was trying to be consistent and maintain a certain pace and wait for my time,” Rotich said. “My strategy was to be patient.”

Consistency and patience were indeed key for Rotich on Saturday, as Albertson admitted that Rotich didn’t necessarily surge ahead. Instead, the Californian just began to slow down late.

Rotich and Albertson were part of a three-person group at the halfway point of the race along with Tyler Jermann, hitting the 13.1-mile mark around 1:06:00. They had two other racers — Mohammed Bati and Will Norris — 42-43 seconds back.

Jermann, 28, of St. Paul, finished fourth in 2:16:42 as the top Minnesotan in the men’s race. Norris, 26, of Charlottesville, Virginia, finished fifth in 2:17:04 while Bati, 21, of Ethiopia, faded out of the top 10.

Joseph Whelan, 30, of Webster, New York, finished third in 2:16:25 after sitting sixth at the halfway point, 1:15:00 off the pace.

Defending champion Boniface Kongin, who won the last Grandma’s run along the North Shore in 2019 in 2:11:56, started Saturday but did not finish the race.