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Runners pass through fog near mile 7 on the Grandma's Marathon race course Saturday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Grandma's Marathon notebook: A great day for finishing the race

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Cool weather for Grandma’s Marathon kept runners out of harm’s way Saturday.

Ben Nelson, the race’s medical director, said just 198 people were treated at the finish-line medical tent. Last year, amid similarly favorable conditions, that number was about 220. In contrast, 577 runners were treated in 2009 when dangerous heat nearly led to the race’s cancellation.

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Saturday couldn’t have been much better for distance running. Morning temperatures were in the high 40s and low 50s, with a modest tailwind and fog under an overcast sky.

“It was perfect for runners, just ideal,” Nelson said. “All in all, people looked good and recovered quickly. It was a pretty easy day.”

Another effective barometer of the conditions: 6,229 started the marathon and a remarkable 6,211 finished (99.7 percent). For the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, 7,298 finished from a starting field of 7,308 (99.9 percent). That percentage of finishers is almost unprecedented.

The 39th Grandma’s Marathon is June 20, 2015. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the half-marathon.

IRON THREE CONTINUE STREAK

For the 38th straight year, a trio of runners completed Grandma’s Marathon.

Joe C. Johnson, 64, of Menominee, Mich., finished the race in 4:28:03; John Naslund, 64, of Bloomington, Minn., finished in 4:49:15; and Jim Nowak, 63, of Reedsburg, Wis., came across in 5:00:49.

ALMOST HAD IT

Alana Hadley was the darling of the pre-race news conference Friday. At 17, Hadley already has qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, becoming the second-youngest qualifier ever.

Hadley, of Charlotte, N.C., hoped to run a personal-record sub-2:40 Saturday and was on that pace before dropping out at mile 19 for what she said was extreme tightness in her right hip flexor.

ONE FAST MASTER

Chris Kipyego apparently is getting better with age.

The 40-year-old Kenyan already had the record for the 35-to-39 age group after winning Grandma’s Marathon in 2011 in 2:12:17. Now he owns the Masters course record.

Kipyego’s time of 2:11:59 was good for third overall, getting edged by countryman Betram Keter for second place by a mere second.

Russia’s Andrey Kuznetsov held the previous Masters mark of 2:14:12, set in 1998, which looks downright pedestrian compared to the times Kipyego is still turning in.

Valentyna Poltavska, meanwhile, was the women’s Masters champion in 2:45:25. Poltavska, 42, hails from Odessa, Ukraine, on the Black Sea, and was staying with host family Marie Kelsey of Duluth. She hoped to run under 2:42.

“I liked the weather, and in comparison to last year, I was a minute-and-a-half faster, so that was good,” Poltavska said through a translator. “Hopefully Duluth will become a tradition. I couldn’t have wished for better accommodations.”

STILL TRUCKIN’

One of the top local finishers was Donny Sazama of Hermantown, who finished in 2:43:10, trimming 30 seconds off the personal record he set last year at Grandma’s.

Sazama earned renown after a photo of him carrying an American flag at the Boston Marathon in April became an iconic symbol, viewed worldwide, and his story about overcoming drug and alcohol addiction was highlighted earlier this week in the News Tribune.

Sazama, 36, was part of a Halvor Lines running team that included fellow drivers Murray Morgan and Mike Purdun, human resources specialist Chelsea Loining and health and wellness coordinator Becca Mathews.

“My goal for a while now has been to break 2:40,” Sazama said. “I know I have it in me, but I just don’t know when. Last year I was hurting afterward. This year, I feel like I could go run a few more.”

After finishing, Sazama was excited to hear how another local runner, Eric Hartmark, fared.

Hartmark finished in 2:37:08, good for 70th among men.

While Hartmark is well known in local running circles, going back to his days at Duluth East in the mid-’90s, Sazama followed a destructive route.

“I ran into Eric at the gym, and it was like meeting my idol,” Sazama said. “Guys like Eric have been running their whole lives and have enjoyed success with it. I’m just doing it trying to survive.”

Other runners spotlighted by the News Tribune included:

Misty Diaz was one of the last runners to cross the half-marathon finish line, but ask anyone there who was the most inspirational, and it’s not even close. It’s a slam dunk.

Diaz, 29, suffers from spina bifida, a congenital birth defect, making walking difficult.

If anyone thought it was difficult to watch the 4-foot-4 Diaz struggle across the line in 4:02:50, think about how difficult it was to actually do.

Diaz was in town from Long Beach, Calif., as the guest of Proctor’s Jennifer McDonald, whose 7-year-old daughter, Emma, also suffers from spina bifida.

Jennifer wanted Emma to see that spina bifida doesn’t have to define who you are or keep you from doing the things you want. Wearing shirts that said, “Never give up,” Jennifer and Misty crossed the finish line together and embraced in a long hug while people in the crowd wiped away tears.

On Facebook, Misty called Emma her “princess,” adding that “we run for those who can’t.”

Rheon Wolske of Ames, Iowa, who was diagnosed with scoliosis at 13, ran the William A. Irvin 5K on Friday in 38:15. The 65-year-old Wolske took up running in February after having her spine realigned in August 2013. Before that, she endured 40 years of chronic back pain, two of which were spent leaning over at a 50-degree angle after a rod fused to her spine snapped free.

Her son, Marty Wolske, ran the full marathon for the fourth consecutive year. He finished in 4:14:58.

Alyssa Meller of Superior, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, finished the half-marathon in 2:04:26.

Running for “Go Big or Go Home,” a subgroup of Team Hope, siblings Jenny Falk and Jeff Bright of Two Harbors ran the half-marathon in matching times of 2:27:44. Another sibling, Carey Hogenson, also of Two Harbors, completed Friday’s 5K in 46:19. Team Hope is connected with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.\

GIVING YOUR ALL

The crowd at the finish line appreciates effort, whether it’s from an elite runner or somebody at the back of the pack.

Matt Fecht, 30, looked fine as he made the final turn onto Canal Park Drive, but he hit the proverbial wall, collapsing a mere 15 feet from the finish line. But Fecht came to Duluth to finish, and finish he would. The crowd roared as he willed himself up and crawled across the line on all fours, only to collapse again.

Fecht, of Warren, Mich., finished in a personal record of 2:18:21, good for 20th overall.

Clearly out of it, Fecht quickly was whisked away in a wheelchair to the medical tent, but he left the fans in Canal Park with a lasting memory and an example of what it means to go the distance.

QUOTABLE

Dick Beardsley, commenting on the ultra-light long-sleeved shirt Dominic Ondoro wore: “Back in my day we didn’t have light shirts like that, and I wasn’t about to wear a flannel.”

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