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Defending marathon champ to return to Duluth after years away

The defending champion is finally back. Kenya's Lamech Mokono returns to Grandma's Marathon on Saturday for the first time since winning in 2008. While a number of travel visa problems kept him from racing in Duluth the past three years, he says ...

Lamech Mokono
Lamech Mokono breaks the tape as the winner of the 2008 Grandma's Marathon. (File / News Tribune)

The defending champion is finally back.

Kenya's Lamech Mokono returns to Grandma's Marathon on Saturday for the first time since winning in 2008. While a number of travel visa problems kept him from racing in Duluth the past three years, he says he's eager to join a talented men's field headed by fellow countrymen.

"I am ready to win again and in a fast time," he said recently from a training camp in Kisii, Kenya.

A paycheck of $11,250, from his Grandma's Marathon debut four years ago, allowed Mokono to buy 15 acres, a house and four cows in Kenya's Gucha District in Nyanza Province. He raises bananas, maize and tea plants.

In preparing for a second trip to Northeastern Minnesota, he went to the race website to confirm the course record of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 37 seconds set by Dick Beardsley in 1981. On a cool day with good competition, Mokono would like to challenge that mark.

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"If I find someone to push me and we reach halfway in 1:03 or 1:04, then there is a chance to break the record," said Mokono, who has a half marathon best of 1:02:53. "We will see who wants to work. I am focusing on winning."

The 2008 Grandma's Marathon produced Mokono's personal best time --2:13:39 --but he was nearly caught at the Canal Park finish. He broke away, built a significant lead in the 26.2-mile race, and, after reaching London Road, was slapping hands with spectators, running under water sprinklers on a warm morning, and even grabbing at bubbles being blown in the air.

But Kenyan David Tuwei made up ground over the last six miles and finished just five seconds back in second place in 2:13:44.

"When we reached 13 miles, there were so many friendly people cheering. I was motivated," remembered Mokono. "I felt I had to do something, so I ran faster, and no one was ready to follow me. I was so happy at the finish."

Kenyans have won four of the last five men's titles at Grandma's Marathon and 11 of the last 16. Fourteen of the top 15 seeded runners Saturday are from East Africa, eight from Kenya, five from Ethiopia. Mokono has spent the past three months in a training camp with 25 runners, some who have run 2:05 and 2:06, he said. Among recent races, he was third in the 25th News and Sentinel Half Marathon in 1:03:53 last Aug. 20 in Parkersburg, W.Va., and won the 36th Phoenix 10K in 30:10 on Nov. 6.

Defending champion Christopher Kipyego of Kenya won in 2011 in personal-best 2:12:17, two-tenths of a second ahead of Ethiopian Teklu Deneke. Their times rank ninth and 10th, respectively on the Grandma's Marathon course through 35 years.

Kipyego led coming down the final straightaway, but misjudged the finish line, slowed and just did gain a victory, in the closest finish in race history.

"Grandma's is such a good race. The competition is good, and the course is good. You run a lot of the race outside the city, in the country, along the lake, which I like," Kipyego said last week from a training site in Mexico. "And many people know about Grandma's Marathon. When I got home last year, after such a close finish, it was in the national news. When you mention Grandma's Marathon, people have heard of it."

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Mokono will wear No. 15 Saturday and Kipyego No. 1.

Weather projections are for overnight lows Friday of 55 along Lake Superior and 60 percent chance of rain Saturday with a high near 80.

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