Philadelphia’s Mohamed Hrezi was the first runner to cross the finish line Saturday morning in Duluth’s Canal Park, but the 29-year-old didn’t know whether he had won the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.
He felt like a winner, though.
“It feels good for now,” he said with a wide smile. “Even if I finish second, I still feel like I won.”
Because of the COVID-19 safety measures put in place, this year’s Bjorklund was chip-timed and featured a rolling start, meaning someone who started after Hrezi on Saturday could have posted a time that was better than the 1:04:14 he posted on the board just after 7 a.m.
None of the other 1,275 male runners were able to top Hrezi’s time, and the same was true for 29-year-old Ann Centner of Tallahassee, Florida. She was the first of 2,030 women to cross the finish line (in 1:14:23), a time that well-exceeded her expectations for the day.
“I was hoping to run at least 1:15:30, but I ran a minute faster than that,” Centner said. “My ‘A’ goal was sub-15, and I shattered that, as well. It’s exciting.”
This year’s Bjorklund did not feature an elite group of racers and no prize money was awarded.
For Hrezi, this was his first competitive road race in six months. He said it was nice to see so many people not only out running on the course, but also lining the finish line cheering the runners as they came across.
"It was a good effort, it was a good crowd, it felt nice," Hrezi said. "A lot of kids, a lot of people out this morning. They got excited to see someone coming down."
Returning champs falter
Four former Grandma’s Marathon champions from the men’s elite, women’s elite and wheelchair division started Saturday’s race, but only two finished.
The 2014 women’s champion, Pasca Myers, had the best day of them all, finishing sixth in 2:36:47. Myers, 34, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, won the 2014 marathon in 2:33:43 and finished eighth in 2019 in 2:36:13.
James Senbeta, 34, of Chicago, won the 2016 men’s wheelchair marathon in 1:27:11, and as he said Friday during a pre-race press conference, he’s been chasing a second title ever since. That chase will continue after he finished eighth in 1:38:19 on Saturday.
The 2019 men’s champion, Boniface Kongin, and two-time women’s champion Sarah Kiptoo (2013, 2016) both did not finish the race Saturday.
John Naslund and Jim Nowak completed their 45th Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday. The former University of Minnesota Duluth track and field teammates are the only two runners to have finished every Grandma’s Marathon dating back to the first in 1977.
Naslund, who also has a streak of 40-consecutive Twin Cities Marathons, finished in 4:39:11 while Nowak came in at 5:39:59.
Naslund, 71, is a native of Two Harbors who now lives in Bloomington while Nowak, a Duluth native, lives in Cornell, Wisconsin.
Neither had a specific time in mind for their 45th running, just to survive and keep themselves in contention for their 46th Grandma’s Marathon on June 18, 2022.
“You got to accommodate getting older, otherwise it’s an exercise in frustration,” Naslund said in the week leading up to the race. “You don’t want to be ‘that guy’ who is constantly talking about what he used to be able to do and complaining that you can’t run what you think you should. You run what you’re able to at the time. This is my first run as a 71-year old.”
Alan Webb holds the American record for fastest mile, laying down a time of 3:46.91 in 2007 that still sits atop the record books.
On Saturday, he ran his first full marathon, finishing Grandma’s in 2:48:25 with a 6:26 mile pace, good for 91st among the men.
Webb retired from professional running in 2014 and ran his first half marathon last month in Memphis, finishing in 1:13:14.
Desperately needing a race where he could post a time that would get him into the 2020 Olympic Marathon in Tokyo, Ruben Sança of Cape Verde fundraised his way into the elite men’s field of Grandma’s Marathon this year.
Sança, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and now works in the River Hawks athletic department, was shooting to beat his personal best of 2:18:43, which is also the national record for Cape Verde. He finished in 2:23:21 on Saturday, good for 13th among the men.
Sança represented Cape Verde in the 2012 Olympics in London, but missed out in 2016 in Rio. He was able to raise $576.26 for the Young Athletes Foundation and also spoke this week to the Boys and Girls Club in Duluth.
No one was up earlier on Saturday morning than 60-year-old Eric Strand of Missouri as he completed the “Grandma’s Double” for the 10th time. Starting around 3 a.m., he ran from Canal Park to the start line in Two Harbors. Then he ran the course again — this time the right way — starting at 7:53 a.m. He finished just after 12:43 p.m. Saturday for an official Grandma’s Marathon time of 4:50:13.
'It was perfect'
Dr. Ben Nelson, medical director for Grandma's Marathon, reported the race treated 87 people on Saturday at the finish line medical tent, with just three racers sent to the hospital for precautionary reasons. It was a relatively boring race for the medical team, which Nelson said he was happy to report.
"It was a run-of-the-mill, quiet day," Nelson said. "It was perfect."
The 87 people accounted for a little over 1% of the total finishers Saturday as 3,305 (1,275 men, 2,030 women) completed the half marathon and 2,762 (1,514 men, 1,248 women) completed the marathon, plus 15 wheelchair racers (14 men, one woman).
Bayfront hosts after-party
The bayside route from the finish line to the after-party was decorated with arrows, colorful flags and arrows — a guide for runners looking to sprawl, sip or listen to local twang from Boxcar.
This year’s post-race party was at Bayfront Festival Park, a switch from past years when Grandma’s Marathon events were contained within a certain square blockage of Canal Park.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday, there were hundreds of runners and watchers drinking beer, grabbing to-go from a Famous Dave’s concession, and plopped in front of the stage where the local alt country band played a Bob Dylan cover, then segued into a running-themed song it wrote. Beyond Boxcar, Whiskey Trail and Big Wave Dave & The Ripples. Rock-a-Billy Revue was the first band on the schedule.
There was a special station where runners could bang a dangling pan if it they set a personal record or ring a bell if they finished their first race.
When the Paul R. Tregurtha passed behind the stage and sounded its horn, at least a dozen phones recorded its pass.