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Berhanu Girma wins Grandma's Marathon

Berhanu Girma crosses the finish line in Canal Park to win the 2012 Grandma's Marathon

Lamech Mokono hoped to win a second Grandma's Marathon title and break a course record that has stood for 31 years. And for more than 20 miles of a 26.2-mile race this morning, he was headed in the right direction along North Shore Drive.

Yet a cup of water near Brighton Beach melted his good intentions.

Mokono, 31, from Kenya's Gucha District, took a large gulp at an aid station near the 19-mile mark, the water went down wrong and he started choking, and stopped for a time.

Ethiopia's Berhanu Girma, dogging Mokono's every step for six miles, moved ahead and went to win in a personal best 2 hours, 12 minutes, 25 seconds in his Duluth debut in the 36th Grandma's Marathon to lead a starting field of 5,930. Mokono, returning for the first time since winning in 2008, placed third in 2:13:28. They were well off Dick Beardsley's course best of 2:09:37, set in 1981.

"I saw everything happen (with Mokono's mishap) and I took that opportunity to take the lead," Girma said through interpreter Ahmed Kemal, an Ethiopian attending St. Scholastica. "Coming into the race, I wanted to put up a good fight and be competitive, but I didn't think I would win."

Girma, 25, from Addis Ababa, gained his first victory in five career marathons and earned $12,500. He's the first Ethiopian men's winner in race history and fifth East African champion in six years, and 12th in the last 17 years, with 11 winners from Kenya. Chala Lemi, 25, also from Addis Ababa, was second in 2:12:58, worth $10,500, and Mokono made $6,250.

Of the top six finishers, two were from Ethiopia and four from Kenya, on a day that started out a tad warm at 66 degrees with 73 percent humidity and sun at 7:45 a.m. outside of Two Harbors, but got cooler, and cloudier, and was 61 degrees by the time Girma finished.

It was a disappointing day in many ways for Mokono, who had been training in Kenya the past three months and believed he was in shape to run 2:07, more than six minutes faster than his personal best. He led, or was in the lead pack, from the third mile. Fifteen runners were together through 10 miles and then splintered to seven runners at mile No. 12 with a 4:46 mile split by Mokono. He followed that with 4:48, 4:48, 4:42, 4:55, 4:59 and 4:49.

Mokono and Girma went through the half marathon in 1:05:44. Mokono, however, did nearly all of the pace setting, a mentally fatiguing job that wasn't shared.

"When I started to push I could hear the other guys talking 'What are you doing?' They did not want to be in the lead. I'm not happy with them," said Mokono. "Strong runners don't act like that. I was still chasing the record at 18 miles. I was giving all I had."

Most elite runners have specially prepared bottles of fluid at aid stations, separate from citizen runners. However, Mokono didn't provide race officials with bottles and drank from paper cups, and simply had water go down wrong, and nearly collapsed. He said that was the first time that had happened in his racing career. He also had a muscle cramp in his left calf at mile No. 24. In the last mile he was passed by Lemi, who was in his first Grandma's Marathon.

Lemi came into the race after training two months at altitude in Entoto, Ethiopia. He said he was bothered by a sore leg late in the race, but just blocked out the pain.

"I could've run faster if it hadn't been for my hamstring, but I was not disappointed," said Lemi, who has a personal best of 2:08:49.

Girma, 5-foot-4 and 123 pounds, was also not at his absolute best. He said fluid problems have caused abdomen pain during his races and he still hasn't figured which drink suits him well. He was content to stay a step behind Mokono until seeing an opening. It marked his second United States race, after finishing 13th in the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:19:45 last October from Minneapolis to St. Paul.

"It was warm at the start, and then it got colder and colder. It was good weather, but I was hoping for a better time," said Girma, who said he puts his winnings into investments at home.

Former St. John's University star runner Chris Erichsen, 26, of Minneapolis was the top American finisher, ninth in personal-best 2:16:31. Early leader Ryan Bak, 30, of Bend, Ore., was 10th in 2:17:22.