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Ondoro wins Grandma's Marathon in record time

Dominic Ondoro of Kenya celebrates with Dick Beardsley at the finish line of Grandma's Marathon in Duluth Saturday morning. Ondoro broke the course record with a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 6 seconds to top Beardsley’s 33-year course record of 2:09:37. Beardsley, a radio commentator for the race, watched Ondoro break his record from the pace car. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Dominic Ondoro of Kenya celebrates at the finish line of Grandma's Marathon in Duluth Saturday morning. Ondoro broke the course record in a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 6 seconds. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

After 33 years, a new record.

Dominic Ondoro, the lightning bolt from Kenya, came to Duluth determined to chase down Dick Beardsley’s Grandma’s Marathon record of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 37 seconds, set in 1981. And with a stunning kick at about 19 miles, Ondoro ran away from his competition and into the Grandma’s record book.

Ondoro finished in 2:09:06, besting the course mark by 31 seconds on a 50-degree, overcast day along the hazy North Shore. Wearing a prophetic No. 1 bib and a yellow tank top over baby blue long sleeves, Ondoro clipped off the final 400 meters, along Canal Park Drive, in front of an appreciative crowd that erupted as he made history.

Ondoro also grabbed another distinction from Beardsley — the fastest marathon ever run in Minnesota.

“It was a great feeling,” said the 26-year-old, who habitually glanced at his watch coming down the stretch. “With the people cheering, it gave you energy. I’m so happy.”

Ondoro was running just his second U.S. marathon; the first was at Houston in January. He earned $10,000 for winning Saturday, along with a $5,000 bonus for finishing under 2:10. The course record is worth a 2014 Toyota, or a $16,000 cash option.

How dominant was Ondoro? The second-place finisher, fellow Kenyan Betram Keter, was almost 3 minutes back, at 2:11:58, good for $7,500. 2011 Grandma’s champ Chris Kipyego was third at 2:11:59 for $5,000. Kipyego claimed another $2,500 by winning the masters division.

With perhaps the strongest field in the race’s history, and ideal weather, many thought Beardsley’s record would fall in 2013. But a conservative early pace thwarted those plans. Saturday, Ondoro and the lead pack attacked the course right away. The early pace-setters — Ondoro, along with Keter, Daniel Aschenik and Jordan Chipangama — reeled off sub-5-minute miles with shocking ease.

Ondoro reached the halfway point in 1:04:46. That put him on track for a record, but the pace slowed shortly after the midway mark. Beardsley, who almost annually predicts his record’s demise, looked safe.

Nineteen miles in, though, Ondoro was ready to make his move. From the lead, he dropped back slightly to see how the field would react, and when the rest of the pack followed suit, he knew he was safe. Finding an extra gear that his competitors simply couldn’t match, he surged. Suddenly, the only question remaining was whether Ondoro could beat Beardsley. He answered it emphatically.

“That’s the way we train,” Ondoro said, explaining he prepares for marathons with 50K runs that emphasize finishing strong. “I wanted to see if they could keep up, but nobody followed me.”

The others, like Keter, only could watch, relegated to battle for second.

“I tried to catch him, but he was just too fast,” Keter said through an interpreter. “I couldn’t do it.”

Ondoro had the best previous marathon time coming into Grandma’s, an even 2:08 last year in Israel. Earlier in the week, he said weather would go a long way in determining the fate of his record pursuit. His agent, Scott Robinson, joked Thursday that he and Ondoro had ordered good weather for Saturday. It worked.

The temperature at the start of the marathon in Two Harbors was 47 degrees, with fog and a 5-mph tailwind. Conditions held steady as the elite runners bore down on Canal Park.

“We felt that if the weather stayed in the low 50s, and obviously with a slight tailwind, that Dominic would have a chance to break the record,” Robinson said.

Beardsley was in Duluth once again Saturday to work as a race commentator for WEBC-AM 560. The media van is at the front of the lead pack for about the first 25.5 miles before pulling off to the side of Harbor Drive, near the William A. Irvin. That’s where Beardsley listened to the waning moments.

“As soon as I heard, I ran over here and I gave him a big hug, shook his hand, congratulated him and told him that he earned that race 100 percent,” Beardsley said.

Afterward, it was hard to tell who was beaming wider — Beardsley or Ondoro. The former record-holder said the key Saturday was the aggressiveness of the frontrunners.

“I’ve said this for years, that if you’re going to get that record, you have to go after it right away and start running a sub-5-minute pace,” Beardsley said. “And that’s what they did.”

Ondoro, who could be seen often making the sign of the cross, ran the final 13.1 miles faster than the first. His defining surge included a 4:39 mile, and he made Lemon Drop Hill, just after mile mark No. 22, look like a speed bump, according to Beardsley.

The result was a new record for Grandma’s — finally.

“I tell ya, he pretty much smoked it,” Beardsley said.

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