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Grandma's Marathon: Third-fastest time in race history gives Barno fourth consecutive Grandma’s title

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Elisha Barno of Kenya takes a commanding lead in Grandma's Marathon. He's pictured here on the course just north of the Lester River. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Elisha Barno crosses the finish line to become the first four-time Grandma's Marathon men's winner. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

They came through 13 miles bunched together, the lead pack of 10 men snaking along Scenic Hwy 61, their brightly colored shoes padding the pavement rhythmically on a gray Saturday morning.

The 42nd Grandma’s Marathon was wide-open. Three-time defending champ Elisha Barno was back there somewhere, often obscured by his larger challengers as he surveyed their willingness to stop running and start racing. He had been out front and as far back as eighth.

Approaching the Talmadge River halfway to Canal Park, Barno accelerated. He was really moving now, putting space between himself and the field. A 10-meter lead became 40. By Mile 15, Barno was a football field ahead of his closest pursuer. Glancing over his left shoulder — a habit — at Mile 16, all Barno could see was empty road.

Which is how a race that started at 7:45 a.m. was effectively over by 9.

The only real drama thereafter centered on how low Barno could go. He provided the answer by breaking the tape to raucous applause in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 6 seconds.

The only man ever to three-peat at Grandma’s had secured a fourth consecutive title. Remarkable.

“I’m very happy to win four times in a row,” the affable 32-year-old Kenyan said.

Barno took advantage of spectacular conditions to produce the third-fastest finishing time in Grandma’s history. It was 55 degrees at the start line in Two Harbors, with a 6-mph tailwind and overcast sky. Fog came and went.

When he dethroned course record-holder Dominic Ondoro in 2015, Barno’s debut win here was by 39 seconds. His next two victories were even more substantial — 60 and 86 seconds, respectively. But Saturday’s margin was simply stunning. Second-place Birhanu Dare Kemal of Ethiopia came through in 2:12:21. Next was Rodgers Gesabwa, in 2:13:23.

Before this streak started, Ondoro, whom Barno trains with in their native Eldoret, Kenya, smashed Dick Beardsley’s record when he unleashed a 2:09:06 in 2014. Saturday, Barno might have had a shot to challenge the mark, but the only thing pressuring him was the watch on his left wrist.

“It was very hard because when you’re alone there’s no one to push you,” he said. “I just say, ‘Let me run’ because there’s nobody else around.

“It’s my race now.”

Indeed, it is.

After covering the first 13.1 miles in 1:06:20, Barno found another gear. He clicked off the next 13.1 in 1:03:46. It looked effortless as Barno, in a blue singlet and black shorts, looked poised throughout. So much so that an Elvis impersonator between miles 17 and 18 could only stop and stare.

Barno had everyone all shook up.

Here’s how 2011 Grandma’s champion and Saturday’s repeat Masters division winner Christopher Kipyego described Barno’s decisive surge — if you can call 13.1 miles a “surge.”

“Boom,” the 44-year-old, also from Kenya, said. “I wasn’t surprised because most of us knew he was in good shape.”

Barno is notoriously strong on uphills. Gesabwa can attest to that.

“You see him going up, then you don’t see him again,” Gesabwa said.

Early Saturday, numerous contenders toyed with the lead. The most unlikely had to be William Mutai, a 2:20 marathoner who was in first at the 10th mile.

It didn’t last, of course. Barno, coming off third-place finishes at both the Houston Marathon in January and the Los Angeles Marathon in March, was too strong. He set a new personal best of 2:09:32 at Houston, which indicates Barno is getting faster as he gets older.

He knows precisely where he will be on June 22, 2019. In Duluth to defend his crown.

“I’ll be back again next year,” Barno said. “Grandma’s is my favorite race.”

Perhaps the only negative for Barno — besides his first- and second-half splits, that is — was his near-miss of the Grandma’s $5,000 bonus for running a sub-2:11. Instead, he had to settle for a $2,500 bonus for coming in under 2:11, to go with $10,000 for the win.

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