After a group of four men strode away to an early lead of Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday morning, a News Tribune sportswriter jotted down their names.
Birhanu Dare Kemal, Daniel Lennon, Kidanu Bereket Alem and 7110.
Elite runners had bibs with their names on the front, while regular humans got the customary numbers. It begged the question — who the heck was this citizen runner with the neck-high legs, and what was he thinking bolting to the front of one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious 26.2-mile footraces?
Initially, he was simply “7110” as members of the media scrambled to find his name. A smattering of social media updates from yours truly:
“Through nine miles, our guy 7110 is on about a 2:06 marathon pace.”
“Nearing 12 miles, 7110 is leading Dare Kemal by about 90 seconds.”
“7110 just threw down a 4:33 mile, yielding a ‘Jimminy!’ from (radio commentator) Dick Beardsley. If he keeps this up, we’ll all know his name soon enough.”
And we did. The owner of bib No. 7110 was Boniface Kongin. A quick Google search revealed that he was the winner of the 2018 Gobble Gallop 5K through downtown Duluth. Seriously. Certainly, there was more to his resume than winning a Thanksgiving morning fun run. Eventually, those highlights filtered in, as well.
Beardsley’s radio cohort, Charlie Mahler, also went with “number 7110” the first time the broadcast was “thrown” to them, 2-3 miles in.
“My fear with a race like this is that it’s going to be one person we’re watching the whole way, who we know nothing about,” Mahler said. “And that’s what this almost started out being.”
As the morning wore on, he and Beardsley were desperate for information about Kongin — personal-record times, hometown, past races, etc. Mahler worked his smartphone frantically piecing together a bio, even though he wasn’t convinced they’d need it.
“I wasn’t that worried about it because my hunch was he might not stay up there,” Mahler said.
Kongin finished second at last October’s Twin Cities Marathon. More recently, the 29-year-old won the Pittsburgh Marathon in early May with a time of 2 hours, 10 minutes and 34 seconds. In between those efforts, of course, there was the Gobble Gallop triumph.
Saturday, we learned plenty more about Kongin. Like the fact that he’s been living in West Duluth and training on the Lakewalk since April. And that he’ll be returning to his home in Iten, Kenya, on July 5.
And while he was new to Grandma’s Marathon contention, by winning Saturday in 2:11:56 Kongin ensured that he’ll no longer be able to run here in obscurity.
He proved his mettle by starting improbably fast, then relying on the massive gap he’d amassed to hold on.
“Spectators are seeing something very special here today,” Beardsley said about 20 miles in, when Kongin still looked poised to shatter Dominic Ondoro’s course record of 2:09:06.
Beardsley also dropped some of his typical superlatives, like “uff da!” and “oh my goodness.” Earlier, approaching the halfway point, Beardsley did wonder aloud if Kongin, who would get through 13.1 miles in a ridiculous 1:02:51, was “in over his head.”
Beardsley wasn’t the only skeptic.
“I thought maybe he’d come back because he was at 2:07 (pace),” said Kongin’s countryman, Elisha Barno, whose string of Grandma’s titles ended at four.
Ondoro, though, was a believer early on. He was racing on the North Shore for the first time since 2015, a year after he set the record.
“After the first 10K, he was still in front, so then I thought he could win,” Ondoro, who didn’t finish Saturday, said of Kongin.
Win is exactly what he did. Not too shabby for the citizen runner. Kongin took the blame for that. He says he simply signed up for Grandma’s too late, and the elite field was already full.
You have to like his chances to get a name on his bib in 2020.
“No, I hope not,” he joked.
Why mess with a winning formula?
Grandma’s executive director Shane Bauer must be prophetic.
In the middle of last week, when the forecast was still causing some consternation, Bauer said he thought “this could be one of the best years conditions-wise for the runners.” He also mentioned that he was the “most relaxed I’ve felt” in the days leading up to the marathon.
Bauer could not have been more right about the weather. For runners, it was as good as it gets — partly cloudy but dry, cool and a tailwind.
“Absolutely ideal conditions,” Bauer said. “We’d take this every year.”
Those conditions work wonders in driving registration numbers thanks, in large part, to the power of social media. Runners talk. And with another year of Mother Nature’s excellence at Grandma’s, their reviews are much more likely to be favorable.
Bauer said just about everything went according to plan, from the buildup to race-day execution. Fast results were recorded, there were a pair of likeable rookie winners in the marathon — Kongin and Nell Rojas — and 73 Americans produced times that qualified them for the Olympic Marathon Trials next February in Atlanta. That also helps the event’s profile.
“It was my 10th marathon and this was the best one I’ve had by far,” said Bauer, previously promotion and design director at Grandma’s before returning as executive director.
The 44th Grandma’s Marathon and 30th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon are June 20, 2020.