The 45th running of Grandma’s Marathon and 31st running of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon will take place Saturday with a full field, hot competition, and a temperature forecast of 47 degrees with a tailwind off Lake Superior.
Athletes are prepped for action and after two years, a prize purse is back on the table and returning top finishers will vie for the $100,000 in rewards.
The legend, Elisha Kiprop Barno, who has four titles at Grandma’s Marathon, is back to the course from his home in Eldoret, Kenya. His training partner and the course record holder from 2014, Dominic Ondoro, has also returned. Milton Rotich Kiplagat, who won the race last year, is back for his third full Grandma’s marathon.
“Every time I come, I make new friends,” said Rotich, 36, who has a personal best time of 2:08:55. Previously, he stayed with a host family in Duluth, running with 2019 winner Boniface Kongin on his favorite lakefront routes. Rotich even took part in the 50th running of the Park Point 5-Mile race in July, which he won.
Barno last won Grandma’s Marathon in 2018—it was his fourth in four years and his fastest time on the course: 2:10:06. Recently, he finished third in Houston (2:11:16), fifth in Los Angeles (2:16:40) and first in the October 2021 Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon in 2:11:07.
“I’m happy to come back, and I’d be very happy to win,” Barno said at the pre-race press conference. “I feel so good.”
The 36-year-old runner knows some Minnesota roads well. He has raced Twin Cities Marathon several years, often coming second to Ondoro. Barno lives and trains in the Rift Valley of Kenya at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. There he lives with his wife and three children.
Tragedy struck the family in August 2020, when their oldest child, Naomi Chebichi, passed away. She was 12, and she had a cancerous tumor in her left leg.
“I lost moral in life because I had lost my first born,” said Elisha, who had stayed with her for a month in the hospital. In his process of grieving for Naomi, he said he had trouble running and lost motivation for competitive running. He took a month off and spent time with his wife and his two other children (12 and 3 years old) while wondering if he could return to professional running life—or regular life at all.
“My friends gave me moral support,” he said. “They told me to not give up and to keep pushing.”
He returned to training and eventually, as the pandemic let up, to marathon running. And amid top international finishes, he and his family received a new blessing: his fourth child, now 3-month-old Blessing Chipto.
Also back is his main competitor from last year—C.J. Albertson, 28, who has finished second to Rotich (at Grandma’s last year) and Barno (by four seconds at the 2019 California International Marathon).
“I don’t know if it adds extra fuel to the fire, but yeah, losing to both of these guys, I’d rather beat them,” he said.
Albertson caught people’s attention when he lead the 2021 Boston Marathon (which took place in the fall) for 20 miles at a record-setting pace. He lost the lead, but finished 10th against some of the best runners in the world. Afterward, people pressed him on his race strategy, something he has had to defend over and over again.
“If I see a chance to break up a pack, I’ll take it and stretch them out,” he said. Albertson was traveling by himself this year. He is married and has a 7-month-old at home, and he said they’ve traveled together quite a bit already.
Ondoro, who was not speaking at the pre-race press conference, but was present in the next room, registered in March. He doesn’t have another major marathon finish since his 2019 win at Twin Cities, according to World Athletics.
Last year’s women’s winner is also back on the course: Dakotah Lindwurm, who has become one of the biggest names in US running. On the heels of finishing 14th at the 2022 Boston Marathon in 2:29:55, Lindwurm has her focus set on becoming the first back-to-back Minnesotan champ at Grandma’s.
“Training has been really good, I’ve had a great build-up,” said Lindwurm, who finished in 2:29:04 last year’s race with a reduced field. “This is my favorite race of the year … they treat me better than anyone else.”
Lindwurm caught COVID-19 after her Boston finish and took a week off from training. After recovering, she was hitting the chain of lakes and the river road in Minneapolis while training with the Minnesota Distance Elite team.
While many championed her Boston finish (she was the fourth American), she felt something wasn’t quite dialed in during the race.
“There’s not a silent moment on the course. I was running a little outside of myself,” she said. “Time-wise I felt I could run around three minutes faster.”
The cool morning at Grandma’s just two months later may be her chance to crack that time goal. Other top contenders include Esther Wanjiru, who ran a 2:29:17 at the 2021 Cape Town Marathon, Sarah Sellers, who finished second at the 2018 Boston, and Molly Culver of Richmond, Virginia, who ran 2:30:20 at the 2021 California International Marathon, and Hiruni Wijayaratne of Sri Lanka, who holds her country’s national marathon record.
The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon race begins at 6 a.m. and the marathon wheelchair racers start at 7:35 a.m., followed by the men’s elite at 7:40, then a mass start with women’s elite five minutes later. The gap between the wheelers, the men’s and women’s starts will allow WDIO-TV to provide a better live feed of both competitions.
The finish chute will be filled with runners this year: 8,794 are registered to run the marathon—the highest number since the 40th anniversary race. In 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to keep many from large groups, the numbers of finishers at Grandma’s Marathon dropped below 3,000 runners, the lowest number of finishers in the race since 1980.
This year, 56 percent percent of the marathon runners are men while for the first time there is a non-binary category, of which three are entered. Although the majority of runners are 19-34 years old, more than 100 runners running the full marathon are 70 years old or older.
In the half marathon, 9,369 runners are registered; 60 percent are women. Of those, more than 3,000 are 19-34, and 126 are 70 or older.