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Three-peat for Barno: Kenyan runs past countryman at water station, makes race history

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Elisha Barno celebrates at the finish line of Grandma's Marathon Saturday morning in Duluth. Barno won with at time of 2:12:06 (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
Geoffrey Bundi (left) and Elisha Barno race down London Road during Grandma's Marathon on Saturday. Barno won his record third title and Bundi finished second. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com 3 / 3

Proper hydration often is cited as a key to any successful long-distance race.

It may have cost Geoffrey Bundi a chance to win Grandma’s Marathon on a humid Saturday morning.

Running side-by-side with two-time defending men’s champ Elisha Barno, Bundi followed his fellow Kenyan into a water station just before Lemon Drop Hill, about 22 miles in. Searching frantically, Bundi couldn’t find his designated bottle, which contained a sports drink. So he hurried across London Road, to a regular station, and snagged a standard water.

Race over.

Barno pounced, turning a two-man duel into a one-man victory parade, the final four unchallenged miles a celebration of his historic accomplishment. No man had ever won three consecutive Grandma’s Marathons.

Until Saturday.

The 31-year-old father of two came through in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 6 seconds. It was well off the 2:11:26 he mustered a year ago, and even further behind his 2:10:38 of 2015, fourth-fastest in event history.

The only number that mattered to Barno was “1,” for first place. Again.

His time got the job done.

“I’m very happy with it,” he said before a sheepish grin appeared, “because I won.”

Bundi (2:13:32) was asked if he could have challenged Barno into Canal Park if not for the water-bottle snafu.

“I was trying to, but he just beat me,” Bundi said. “He’s stronger than me.”

He came in hoping to break 2:10, an ambitious aim for a debut marathoner. Then again, Bundi boasts a half-marathon personal best of 1:00:26, and he’s a lanky, fluid runner who doesn’t waste much energy. He seems well-equipped for success at 26.2 miles.

What started as a supersized lead pack remained 12-strong past the French River on Scenic Highway 61 and through the midway point. With that many elites bunched together, jockeying for position is inevitable. Just about everyone, it seemed, took a turn at the front. That included the ageless Christopher Kipyego, a Grandma’s regular and the 2011 champion. Kenyans Milton Rotich and Macdonard Ondara similarly also toyed with the lead.

At 18 miles, the pack was whittled to seven. Former course record-holder Dick Beardsley, customarily working the radio broadcast, kept wondering who would make the first big move. Barno and Bundi provided the answer to that question between miles 19-20. They dropped the field, effortlessly.

What had been a slow — depending on your perspective — and steady pace quickened. Barno, in a blue singlet and black shorts, and Bundi, wearing peach and black, went stride-for-stride. Stone-faced, arms pumping, they battled into Duluth.

Barno has a habit of looking over his left shoulder to survey the competition. As he charged up Lemon Drop Hill, he did so again and, for the first time all morning, nobody was there. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to relax.

“You have to be careful because, in the marathon, anything can happen,” he said. “Somebody can come up on you.”

Instead, Barno built an insurmountable gap. He and the rest of the leaders knocked out the first 13.1 miles in 1:06:30, a modest 2:13 pace. But over the final seven miles, he found another gear, negative-splitting his way into the 41-year-old Grandma’s record book.

Saturday’s victory was worth $11,500 — $10,000 for first place, plus $1,500 for a sub-2:13.

Not a bad payday considering Barno didn’t arrive in town until 5 p.m. Friday. Travel issues kept him in Nairobi until 3 p.m. Thursday (11 p.m. in Nairobi). From there he flew to Amsterdam, then to Minneapolis and, finally, Duluth.

No sweat, Barno said. He trusted his training. And he slept plenty on the plane. Sure, he was tired early on Saturday, but once the adrenaline kicked in and the chess game commenced, Barno was ready to play along.

“I was mentally and physically ready,” Barno said.

Third place went to Ondara (2:14:40). The 43-year-old Kipyego (2:15:14) was fourth.

Barno has run two marathons in 2017, and he’s won them both. In March, he was first at the Los Angeles Marathon. He plans to take some time off before a return to Minnesota in the fall, to compete at Twin Cities. Beyond that, the rest of his schedule is unclear — except for June 2018. Barno knows exactly where he’ll be a year from now.

Right back on the North Shore, at Minnesota’s oldest marathon, trying to make it four in a row.

“I’ll be here next year, too,” he said. “Duluth is like my second home, all the people cheering and the kids yelling.”

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