Radio analyst Charlie Mahler summed up the rather tenuous state of Grandma’s Marathon leader Boniface Kongin when, approaching Lemon Drop Hill, he cracked: “If the wheels aren’t coming off, he’s losing tire pressure.”
A wobbly Kongin was on the verge of opening the race back up after shocking the field, as well as spectators lining Scenic Highway 61, by unleashing a pace seldom — if ever — seen on this Lake Superior-hugging course. From a pack of elites, all of whom had bibs featuring their last names, it was No. 7110 dashing to the front at the Knife River.
It became almost comical, this no-namer who was toying with the lead at Minnesota’s oldest marathon. But then Kongin’s gap grew and grew. And grew some more. Through 19 miles, the 29-year-old was on a 2:06 pace, which would have destroyed Dominic Ondoro’s course record of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 6 seconds.
Kongin eventually slowed, dramatically. But he had a big enough cushion to hold off second-place Andrew Colley and claim the 43rd Grandma’s in 2:11:56.
“I knew the damage was going to come at some point,” said Kongin, who battled a balky hamstring and Achilles tendon, which progressively worsened. “I was not going for time — I was going to finish.”
It was the least the Kenyan could do for a community that has embraced him.
Here’s where his story gets really wild.
Not only did Kongin stop Elisha Barno’s Grandma’s winning streak a mere 48 days after winning the Pittsburgh Marathon, but he also ran about 31 miles on April 22 at the downtown Duluth YMCA. He’s been living here — near Denfeld High School — since mid-April, with a couple he befriended at the Twin Cities Marathon last October, where he was runner-up to Barno.
Oh, and he won the Gobble Gallop 5K in November.
Add it all up, and Boniface “Bones” Kongin had to collect himself while answering a question about the meaning of Saturday’s race.
“It means more because it’s the nicest city I’ve ever been to,” he said, his red eyes glistening. “I’ve met so many people here. Everyone is so friendly. So this one means a lot.
“It’s like my second home. I’m so happy.”
Kongin, who did the bulk of his local training on the Lakewalk, has been staying with Brian and Tina Nelson. He arrived in Duluth on April 19 and, three days later, assisted David Hyopponen, a friend of the Nelsons, in his pursuit of 100 treadmill miles in 16 hours for the YMCA’s Healthy Kids program.
Over a few different segments that day, Kongin put in about 31 miles, Tina Nelson said.
“He never wanted (Hyopponen) to run alone,” she said of Kongin sticking around to help him keep going.
Barno, himself all but an adopted Duluthian thanks to his four consecutive victories here, never challenged Saturday. Nor did his buddy and training partner, Ondoro, who lowered Dick Beardsley’s longtime record from 2:09:37 to 2:09:06 in 2014.
Barno's overall place was 100, via a 2:31:17. Ondoro withdrew at about 17 miles.
For a while, it looked like the same fate would bedevil Kongin. He stopped briefly nearing the 20th mile to rub his right Achilles tendon, something he’d do at least four more times before slinking across the finish line, upon which Kongin immediately dropped to a knee and thrust an index finger skyward, before crumpling all the way to the ground.
By then, he was running on nothing more than grit, a reality that struck finish-line announcer Peter Graves.
“This reminds me of the Little Engine That Could — ‘I think I can, I think I can,’ ” Graves bellowed. “I don’t know how our winner did it. When his body was screaming, he found a way. Today he was simply an inspiration.”
Prior to the faltering, Kongin had been cruising right along, his impossibly long legs — which seem to account for about 80 percent of his 6-foot frame — chewing up large chunks of pavement as he ditched the pack and bounded solo toward Canal Park and, presumably, into Grandma’s Marathon lore.
As his ailments intensified, though, Kongin became human again. He estimated that, coming in, his right Achilles was at 60 percent, and his left hamstring 70 percent. They started to give him trouble around miles 12-13, he said. Kongin expected that. But his plan to was to run hard until he no longer could.
Fortunately for him, he was so far ahead of the competition that he could hobble a bit and still edge Colley of Blowing Rock, N.C., who was second in 2:12:13.
Kongin’s win was worth $10,000 and his sub-2:12 earned an additional $2,000.
For the first time in his Grandma’s career, Barno leaves Duluth without that first-place prize money. And while Barno wasn’t his usual chatty self Saturday, he said he could take solace in everything he’s accomplished along the North Shore. In addition to the four-year winning streak, he owns the third- and fifth-fastest times in race history.
“I’m very happy to win four times,” Barno said. “Maybe next year I can come back and try to get my title again.”