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Five-time champion Elisha Barno leads the field at the Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday
Five-time champion Elisha Barno leads the field at the Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday

DULUTH – Don’t call Elisha Barno old. Or over the hill. Or past his prime.

At 39 years old, he can be called the “King of the Hill” of Grandma’s Marathon.

The 1.65 meter tall Kenyan has been unmatched among runners in the 42.199 kilometer race from Two Harbors to Duluth in the first 47 years of its existence.

Barno heads to the start line Saturday with five titles in the men’s Grandma’s Marathon, including a win in 2023, and two of the six best times in race history.

It is no coincidence that you can be successful in road races in your late 30s, says one of the most successful marathon runners in history.

“So many athletes want to constantly push themselves to the limit and that can be hard on the body,” said 72-year-old Doug Kurtis from his home in Weaverville, North Carolina. “When I was competing, I wasn’t trying to run faster in every race. I often ran 80 percent of my capacity and enjoyed every day. I wanted to be consistent.”

Kurtis won 40 marathons in his career, running 200 times under three hours. His most satisfying achievement was winning the Grandma’s Marathon in 1989 at the age of 37. He returned in 1993 and won at the age of 41, becoming the oldest champion of the race (along with women’s winner Fira Sultanova in 2003).

Barno, of Eldoret, Kenya, became the second oldest Grandma’s winner a year ago at age 38 with a personal best of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 14 seconds. He won the first four times he came to Duluth (2015-2018). At the Twin Cities Marathon, he has won once (2018) and finished second three times. He has 12 wins in 34 career marathons.

“I’m strong, I’m healthy and I want to fulfill my mission and my dream every year. I want to defend my title,” Barno, the father of three daughters, said this week. “I don’t have another job, so I’m working hard on this one and I think I can run even better.”

“It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about training, nutrition and running without stress. My age is not important.”

For inspiration, he needs to look to two East Africans who will compete in the Summer Olympics in Paris in July 2024. Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, 42, and Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, 39, are two of the greatest runners in history. Bekele won the 2019 Berlin Marathon at age 37 in 2:01:41. Kipchoge won a second Olympic marathon title in 2020 at age 33 in 2:08:38.

“In my 40s, I didn’t feel like age was holding me back,” said Kurtis, who won the 1994 Boston Marathon for over-40s, which earned him a trip to the White House and a run with Bill Clinton. “The older you get, the better you can plan things and enter races smarter.”

Kurtis is in Duluth this weekend, commentating on the race on television. He is one of six men to have won two Grandma titles – the others are Garry Bjorklund, Dick Beardsley and Kenyans Patrick Muturi, course record holder Dominic Ondoro and the late Wesly Ngetich. Ondoro, 36, who also runs Saturday, is a four-time winner of the Twin Cities Marathon and course record holder. He and Barno are training partners and plan to run together.

East African men have won 23 of the last 26 Grandma titles. In the women’s category, Lorraine Moller and Mary Akor have won three championship titles each. In the wheelchair category, Tami Oothoudt has ten wins and Paul Van Winkel has eight.

Weather problems

After a heavy downpour in northeastern Minnesota on Tuesday, a wet Saturday is forecast on the North Coast. The rain could affect start times for the marathon and the accompanying Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, race officials say.

If race day changes are needed, runners will be notified electronically by 3 a.m., spokesman Zach Schneider said. He said it’s likely it will be wet in the morning, but he’s hopeful the races will go ahead. Grandma’s Marathon has never been canceled.

Former wheelchair users Aaron Pike, Susannah Scaroni and Jenna Fesemyer have withdrawn from the marathon due to the rain forecast.

When the 2023 Twin Cities Marathon was canceled on October 1 due to heat, it took the managing nonprofit Twin Cities in Motion more than two weeks to decide to refund the full registration fee.

Grandma’s Marathon has since revised its protocol: “We spent much of the year revising our contingency plan, and we are confident that we are well prepared. Our refund policy has not changed – no refunds has always been our policy and that will remain the case for this year’s race,” Schneider said.

Olympic participant leads the field

Dakotah Lindwurm, 29, of Minnesota, is the star participant in the 34th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. She won the Grandma’s Marathon women’s title in 2021 and 2022 in a row and took second place in 2023.

She qualified for the 2024 Summer Olympics by finishing third at the U.S. Marathon Trials in Orlando on February 3 with a time of 2:25:31. The women’s Olympic marathon will be held in Paris on August 11.

Two other women from Minnesota have competed in an Olympic marathon: Kara Goucher, who finished 11th in London in 2012, and Janis Klecker, who finished 21st in Barcelona in 1992.

Since a virtual year of participation in 2020, Grandma’s Marathon participation has increased to a record 9,993 in 2024. With 6,690 finishers, it was the tenth largest U.S. marathon in 2023.

48th OMA MARATHON

Where and when: Saturday, 26.2 miles, starting from Two Harbors on North Shore Drive to Canal Park Drive in Duluth. Wheelchair and handicapped at 7:35 a.m., elite men at 7:40 a.m., elite women and citizens at 7:45 a.m.

Field: 9,993 registered runners compete for prize money of $107,450 ($10,000 each for the overall men’s and women’s winners).

34th Garry Björklund Half Marathon

When and where: Saturday, 13.1 miles, starting at the Talmadge River on North Shore Drive to Canal Park Drive in Duluth. Adaptive at 5:50 a.m., Elite and Citizen at 6 a.m.

Field: 9,639 registered runners compete for prize money of $26,425 ($3,000 each for the overall men’s and women’s winners).

By Liam