Meet the face of this year's Grandma's Marathon

Her smiling face is on every promotional piece produced by Grandma's Marathon this year -- posters, press guides, media passes, race week programs. It is on a billboard on I-35. She's Ariana Hilborn and she's smiling, and raising her arms in cele...

Ariana Hilborn
Ariana Hilborn's image from 2011 is being used in promotional posters for the 2012 Grandma's Marathon. (Grandma's Marathon)

Her smiling face is on every promotional piece produced by Grandma's Marathon this year -- posters, press guides, media passes, race week programs.

It is on a billboard on I-35.

She's Ariana Hilborn and she's smiling, and raising her arms in celebration, while cruising down the final straightaway in Canal Park at the 2011 Grandma's Marathon.

Why so ebullient?

Hilborn, 31, who grew up in Greendale, Wis., could see the timing clock and knew she'd finish faster than 2 hours and 39 minutes, the A standard to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials women's marathon. Her trip to Houston in January for the trials race would be paid for.


"When I came around the last corner (off of Harbor Drive) and saw the clock, I started crying. I was hyperventilating. It was the best moment of my running life; an amazing feeling," Hilborn remembered last week from home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

She was 10th in the Grandma's Marathon women's field in a personal best 2:37:29 for 26.2 miles on an ideal running day, and is back for Saturday's 36th annual event.

When race promotion and design director Zach Hitchcock started poring through thousands of 2011 photos taken by Jeff Frey & Associates of Duluth, in search of images for a 2012 advertising campaign, he was struck by Hilborn's expression.

"She captured the essence of Grandma's Marathon," said Hitchcock. "Her excitement could apply to any number of runners reaching a goal at Grandma's -- a Boston Marathon qualifying time, a personal best or a novice runner reaching the finish line for the first time."

Hitchcock and race public relations director Bob Gustafson then made her image ever-present in recent months. When Minnesota native Christopher Raabe won the 2009 Grandma's Marathon, interrupting a streak of international champions, his image was used to promote the 2010 race.

Adding to Hilborn's downright giddiness was that her foray into road racing began just four years earlier.

She didn't run at Greendale High School or when attending Arizona State, graduating in 2003. After college, she and future husband, Matt Hill, took to the sport to stay in shape. They joined Team in Training, a network which provides coaching advice for those in endurance events raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Hilborn and Hill entered the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon in January 2008. They finished in 4½ hours.


"That was the worst experience of my life," said Hilborn. "I ended up walking a lot. I wasn't prepared for the pain."

A second try was six months later, in June 2008, at the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon in 4:11. By then, Hilborn said she'd become immersed in the distance, reading everything she could on the subject.

In December 2008, she ran the Tucson (Ariz.) Marathon in 3:32.

In April 2009, she ran the Boston Marathon in 3:28:09

In December 2009, she ran the Tucson Marathon in 2:58:53 and placed second in the women's division.

That was an improvement of more than 90 minutes in less than two years. She's run 11 marathons and is now training an average of 120 miles a week.

"I found I really enjoy the training and the racing, and the running community," said Hilborn. "If someone had told me that within four years I would be at the Olympic Trials, I would've just laughed. I was able to get there and it was a great experience."

She placed 29th in a field of 152 Olympic Trials finishers in 2:37:37. She's also raced three half marathons in 2012, taking third in Hollywood, Calif., in 1:17:03, second in San Diego in 1:15:32 and first in Orange County, Calif., in 1:15:51.


Hilborn has so taken to running that, after six years as an elementary school teacher, she gave up the job in 2011 and is training full time. After Grandma's Marathon she and Hill (who works in the finance industry), and their black Labrador are moving to Rochester, Mich., to join the Hansons Brooks Olympic development team.

"This just looks like a perfect opportunity," said Hilborn.

She says the gently rolling hills of the Grandma's Marathon course suit her well and she's looking forward to a second run along Lake Superior. This time, her parents, Rita and Andris Zvers, are driving from Greendale to see what the marathon excitement is all about.

-- Leading the women's division are three of the top four finishers from last year --defending champion Yihunlish Delelecha, 30, of Ethiopia; runner-up Everlyne Lagat, 31, of Kenya; and fourth-place Doreen Kitaka, 28, of Kenya. Entering the race's all-time top 10 in 2011 were Delelecha at No. 6 in 2:30:39 and Lagat at No. 7 in 2:31:32.

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