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Hellen Jepkurgat wins Grandma's Marathon women's race

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Hellen Jepkurgat of Kenya won the Grandma’s Marathon women’s race Saturday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Hellen Jepkurgat was asked Saturday what it was like to make the last turn at Grandma’s Marathon knowing she had the victory in her grasp.

The standard reply generally involves acknowledging the crowd and pontificating about how great it is to cross the line first. Not Jepkurgat. She just wanted it over.

“Ohhhhh … I was tired,” she said, shaking her head.

While the Kenyan’s English is limited, that expression was universal.

Jepkurgat finished the 26.2-mile course from Two Harbors to Duluth in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 9 seconds, winning by 16 seconds over Askale Merachi. Fellow Ethiopian Serkalem Abrha was third in 2:34:08.

Jepkurgat, 36, has been in Duluth before, finishing third in the Minnesota Mile in 4:52.1, but she was making her Grandma’s debut.

“My body feels good, but that was a lot of sun, and it was humid,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that. This was my first time.”

A muggy morning with high humidity and temperatures in the low 70s is atypical for this race, but unfortunately for Jepkurgat, Lake Superior broke about a week earlier than normal this year, making Canal Park feel almost tropical Friday but a little cooler Saturday.

Jepkurgat ran with a pack of runners until 14 miles, when she and the 30-year-old Merachi broke away.

“Then at 20 miles, I left her,” Jepkurgat said, drawing a laugh.

To Merachi’s credit, she stayed within sight of Jepkurgat all the way to the finish, trimming more than three minutes off her personal record. She also was making her Grandma’s debut.

“I tried over and over to get close. I’d get close and then fall back, and then try again,” Merachi said through an interpreter. “I liked the weather, I liked the course. I tried, but there wasn’t any more I could do.”

Jepkurgat is enjoying a career renaissance, winning the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:34:23 in March in conditions more suited for her (i.e. less muggy). At 6-foot-2, she towers over most of the other women’s competitors. She trains in Kapsabet, Kenya, renowned for distance running, and lists Grand Prairie, Texas, as her home base in the U.S.

After being asked by a TV reporter why she runs, Jepkurgat drew another big laugh when she said, “It’s my talent. I like it. I’ve been running since third grade.”

Jepkurgat is certainly polite.

Will she run Grandma’s again?

“Yes.”

Next year?

“Yesssss!”

Akor tops Masters field

Jepkurgat earned $10,000 for her victory, with an additional $1,500 for going sub-2:33.

Three-time Grandma’s Marathon champion Mary Akor (2007-09) finished 12th in 2:53:32, taking the Masters 40-and-over title and earning $2,500. Akor, 40, of Hawthorne, Calif., failed a drug test in 2013 and was banned two years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency but returned Saturday to an event she has long admired.

Masters runner-up Brenda Hodge of York, Pa., was emotional after finishing in 3:00:16, just off her goal of three hours.

“I was hoping it’d be special, and it was,” Hodge said. “It was hot.”

To beat the heat, Hodge told people at every water station to drink water and douse yourself in it.

“The volunteers were great. They had water, and for me, sponges and ice,” Hodge said. “They were so helpful. I don’t think you can ever thank them enough.”

Hodge, 45, is a late bloomer. The mother of four never ran in college and didn’t pick up marathoning until her 40s, finding it helped relieve stress and anxiety. She ran Boston in 3:03 in 2015, broke three hours for the first time at Grandma’s Marathon with a 2:58 that June and then followed that up with a PR 2:53 at Chicago that fall.

“People were like, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing five-minute PRs every time you do a marathon,” Hodge recalled, laughing.

Hodge said Duluth and Akron are her favorite marathons. She said Grandma’s Marathon provides big-town accommodations with a small-town feel.

“The greatest attraction here is the lake,” Hodge said. “You’re in nature at the start. It smells like Christmas all the time, and it’s relaxing and beautiful and hard to be anxious in that kind of environment. Then when you start to get tired, you come into town and have all the people to jazz you up. I love it. I just think it’s really really special.”

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