Mokono wins Grandma's Marathon in second-closest finish in race history

Along London Road this morning, Kenya's Lamech Mokono slapped hands with spectators, ran underneath water sprinklers, grabbed at bubbles in the air and smiled. He smiled a lot.

Lamech Mokono crosses the Grandma's Marathon finish line this morning in Canal Park.

Along London Road this morning, Kenya's Lamech Mokono slapped hands with spectators, ran underneath water sprinklers, grabbed at bubbles in the air and smiled. He smiled a lot.

Mokono, 27, knew he had a sizeable lead in the 32nd Grandma's Marathon with about five miles remaining in the 26.2-mile race. He started to think there was a bit of luck on his side.

He was told Friday he'd been issued the same race bib number, No. 6, worn last year by 2007 champion Wesly Ngetich of Kenya.

"At Mile 21, I felt I was the defending champion," said Mokono, making his Duluth debut. "I looked at the chest number and I said, 'This is a winning number,' so I was helped by that."

That inspiration drove Mokono and he was able to hold on for a five-second victory in the second-closest finish in race history. He finished in a personal-best time of 2 hours, 13 minutes, 39 seconds in just his third marathon. David Tuwei, 29, of Kenya started his pursuit of the leader just a little late and finished second in 2:13:44, also a personal record in his third marathon. Benson Cheruiyot, 25, finished a Kenyan sweep in third in 2:14:20.


The win, worth $11,250, was accomplished on a day of mixed emotions. A moment of silence was held before the 7:30 a.m. start to honor Ngetich, who was killed Jan. 21 at Emarti village in Kenya's Trans Mara district when caught in the middle of a peacemaking situation that turned violent. He was 30.

Kenya's continuing dominance at Grandma's Marathon was a fitting tribute. Kenyans claimed the first five spots and 14 of the top 20, while four other places went to Ethiopians. Minnesota native Christopher Raabe of Washington, D.C., placed sixth to break the African supremacy.

Yet no one was able to break up-and-coming marathoner Mokono, who became the sixth Kenyan winner in the last eight years. He pulled away at 12 miles on a third straight warm Grandma's Marathon.

"When he pushed ahead of us, I wanted to chase him but one of the guys in the pack [New Zealand's Michael Aish] said Mokono wouldn't finish the race," said Cheruiyot, who is from Litein in Kenya's Kericho district and ran 2:14:04 on April 20 in Greece. "So I relaxed until 18 miles and then I decided to push very hard. I was getting closer, maybe within 80 meters from miles 15 to 17, but I was pushing alone. [Mokono] then started running the same pace and the gap was very difficult to close."

A starting field of 7,103 runners faced sun, 59 degrees, calm winds and high humidity to begin the race just south of Two Harbors on North Shore Drive. It was 70 degrees by 9:45 a.m. at the Canal Park finish and 72 by noon. A temperature reading at noon at the race medical tent was 82 degrees.

A lead pack of 20-25 runners quickly developed in the opening miles and there was virtually no change through 11 miles. Mokono had had enough.

"It was warm and no one wanted to push, everyone wanted to stay behind, and I said, 'I'll go alone.' I looked behind me after one mile [at No. 13] and the gap between me and the rest of the runners was widening, so I knew my pace was good," said Mokono, who trains in Embu, Kenya, but has worked with the AmeriKenyan Running Club in Santa Fe, N.M., since February. "By 15 miles I discovered I was 700 to 800 meters ahead of the rest."

Mokono, 5-foot-11 and 128 pounds, broke away with a 5:02 mile going to No. 13, reached the half-marathon mark in 1:06:46, and then strung together miles of 4:55, 4:57, 4:52, 4:58, 4:54 and 4:54 through 19 to extend his lead to more than 50 seconds.


In his most recent race, the One American 500 Half-Marathon in Indianapolis on May 3, he finished in a tie with countryman Valentine Orare in 1:02:53.

Grandma's runner-up Tuwei made his bid to reel in Mokono during the closing miles and was just short.

"With three miles remaining I had a cup of water and got some energy, and passed [Cheruiyot] a mile later and then I tried to chase Mokono," said Tuwei, who earned $8,750 from a purse of $90,000. "If the race was one kilometer longer, I don't know if I would've caught him, but I might have."

Down the final straightaway on Canal Park Drive, Mokono raised his hands above his head and rejoiced with spectators before the finish line as Tuwei sped in behind. The winner lowered his personal best by nearly two minutes, bettering his time of 2:15:29, placing fifth in the Phoenix Rock 'n' Roll Marathon on Jan. 13.

"This is my best year [in road racing] and I'm proud of winning here,'' said Mokono, a former track runner with bests of 3:40 for 1,500 meters and 1:46 for 800 meters. "Next I'd like to run one of the world major marathons and run 2:10 or 2:08."

The closest Grandma's Marathon men's finish was in 1999 when Kenyan Andrew Musuva defeated Ethiopian Tesfaye Bekele by four seconds.

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