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Kiptoo back to defend Grandma's record

Sarah Kiptoo of Kenya celebrates as she approaches the finish of the 2013 Grandma’s Marathon. She set a course record with a time of 2:26:32. Kiptoo, 24, returns to the elite women’s field hoping to retain her title. File / News Tribune

With a strong field, 50-degree temperatures and a tailwind forecast, there was a lot of talk leading up to Grandma’s Marathon last year that it could be the year the record finally fell.

Well, a record did fall, but it wasn’t the record some had been predicting.

Kenya’s Sarah Kiptoo shattered the women’s course record in 2013, covering the 26.2 miles in 2 hours, 26 minutes, 32 seconds, breaking Fira Sultanova’s 2003 mark by 33 seconds.

Kiptoo, 24, is back to defend her title. She’ll be wearing bib No. F1.

 “I’m ready,” Kiptoo said Wednesday from Santa Fe, N.M., where she trains. “Last year I was very excited for the race, and I ran my best. I was in great shape. I didn’t expect to do what I did last year. I couldn’t believe it, but everything was perfect.”

How perfect?

Kiptoo, still a newcomer to marathoning, having started in 2012, lopped 11 minutes off her personal record at the Cleveland Marathon six weeks before Grandma’s last year. Then, she took another 7 minutes off that PR at Grandma’s, making for an incredible 18 minutes shed in just two races over six weeks.

Kiptoo clocked 1:11:31 at the halfway point at Grandma’s — a time that would have been good for fifth, among men — in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon held earlier in the day.

“I was flying,” Kiptoo said. “My body was feeling good.”

Kiptoo’s meteoric rise in the running universe has been

 tempered a bit in the past year.

After Grandma’s, Kiptoo ran in Toronto and then Houston, but didn’t finish Houston after having knee trouble. She then finished second in 2:31:23 during the California International Marathon in Sacramento on a December day when temperatures were in the high 20s at the start. It was reportedly cold enough to ice over the water and sports drinks in the paper cups at the aid stations, and then when they spilled, the aid stations became like ice rinks for jostling runners without skates.

A lot of Kenyans are thrown off by cooler weather, and even Kiptoo, has her limits.

 “I don’t mind cooler temperatures,” Kiptoo said, “but that was cold!”

Kiptoo, a mother of two, returned home to Kenya for a couple months last winter and said her training was hampered by flu-like sickness. She returned to the U.S. and defended her marathon title in Cleveland in 2:34:58, just over a minute off her time from the year before.

“I feel good, but not like last year,” Kiptoo said. “But I’ll try my best. This year might require more strategy. I’ll still try to win, but it won’t be like last year.”

Kiptoo’s chief competition could come from countrywoman Doreen Kitaka (bib F2), last year’s runner-up with a PR of 2:30:21.

Atalelech Asfaw, a native of Ethiopia, is another favorite. Asfaw, 31, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who trains out of Albuquerque, N.M., and is friends with Kiptoo.

“I don’t know how Sarah did it,” Asfaw said. “That was an amazing time. She had nice weather, so if it works out like last year, maybe we’ll all do good.”

Asfaw finished third in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in 2011, finishing in 1:16:49, but is running her first Grandma’s Marathon. She has a top marathon time of 2:33:56.

Like Kiptoo, Asfaw doesn’t feel she is 100 percent, and a lot can happen in a 26.2-mile race. Asfaw will either have to take time off or need surgery following Saturday’s race for a lingering hip injury.

“We all train to win,” Asfaw said. “We’d all like to win, but wishing and winning are two different things.”

Kiptoo’s victory at Grandma’s last year was a financial windfall. She earned $10,000 for winning, $10,000 for running and a 2013 Toyota Corolla for setting the course record.

So while Dick Beardsley still has the men’s course record of 2:09:37, set in 1981, good for at least one more year of talk and speculation, Kiptoo is more than happy with the reality.

Kiptoo is the third of 11 children in her family — and the only runner. She used a good chunk of her Grandma’s Marathon winnings to provide support for her siblings, her parents and her children back home, even installing a solar system to provide power to their house in Kenya. They now have lights in every room.

TEENAGE RACELAND

With a PR of 2:41:55, Alana Hadley might not finish at the front of the pack Saturday, but the future for the Charlotte, N.C., runner is certainly bright.

Hadley is 17 and already has qualified for the 2016 U.S Olympic Marathon Trials, becoming the second youngest qualifier ever. On Saturday, look for the rather fitting, bib No. F17.

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