MINNEAPOLIS/ST.PAUL — The day that would upset Kenyan runners began just before 8a.m on Sunday, as thousands of warmed up runners gathered behind the start line at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, anxiously awaiting the start of the 26th Twin Cities Marathon.
First there was the U.S. national anthem, followed by a brief moment of silence, the blaring sound of a horn and then the sound of the running feet of the marathoners amid wild cheers from thousands of spectators.
Riding through the course of the race it’s difficult to refute claims by organizers of the Twin Cities Marathon that it’s “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America.” The route, which boasts of landmarks such as The Basilica of Saint Mary, The Walker Art Center, The Governor’s Mansion and Cathedral Hill, also navigates through lakes Calhoun, Harriet and Nokomis, providing stunning views of downtown Minneapolis. Various shades of orange and red fall colored leaves of trees lining the roads of Minnehaha Parkway and River Road add a sense of serenity to the course yet at the same time cheering crowds energize the runners.
But just like a beautiful rose, this beautiful event had its thorns. The 72-degree temperature at start of the race set a new record. The heat combined with 80 percent humidity made for a very uncomfortable run, even for the Kenyans, who are stereotyped to be from a country many degrees hotter. The only runners who seemed oblivious to the heat were 2004 runner up Ukrainian Mykola Antonenko, and Russian Svetlana Ponomarenko, who easily claimed the men’s and women’s titles respectively.
In the men’s race, 2004 winner Augustus Kavutu Mbusya kept his former rival in check at the beginning of the race, but eight miles in Antonenko broke away from a pack of about nine Kenyans.
That was the last time they would see him.
Antonenko continued to widen the gap between himself and his competitors by running each subsequent mile in less than 5 minutes and only slowed down after 21 miles at the legendary climb up Summit Ave. Antonenko got to the finish line at Capital Hill in 2:13:54 – a whopping six minutes and eighteen seconds ahead of Kenya’s Joseph Mutinda.
Antonenko burst through the finish line with a big smile and fist in the air, obviously pleased with his victory, but said that he did not reach his goal of 2:11 due to the lack of pressure from the competition he had left far behind.
Mutinda, who is a member of the SantaFe based AmeriKenyan Running Club, said the humidity was a hindrance. Mutinda also said he experienced delays in getting a visa, which meant that he was still jet lagged having just arrived on Thursday. A hamstring injury was also another factor, he said. At the 20-mile mark, he was in fourth place, but after 23 miles he “pushed” himself into second place.
“Ukiona mtu anakuja na mbio hivyo kutoka nyuma humfuati,” (When you see someone come from behind you with that much speed you don’t follow him), joked third-placed Mbusya about Mutinda’s dash to the end.
For all the joking among the Kenyan runners, Mbusya became serious when talking about Antonenko.
“Tulidhani tutamshika, next time hatutamwacha. Tutamshikilia mpaka mwisho,” (We thought we would catch up with him. Next time we won’t let him go, we will stay with him to the end), said Mbusya, who vowed to reclaim his title next year.
In the women’s race Sharon Cherop and Svetlana Ponomarenko ran neck and neck, but after the half mark Ponomarenko took off to cinch the women’s title in 2:34:9. Twenty-three year old Cherop, running her first marathon ever, impressively held on to the second spot only to be pushed into third place by another Russian, Alena Vinitskaya, a well known strong finisher. Cherop crossed the finish line at 2:38:45, just 23 seconds behind Vinitskaya, and fell into the arms of Vanessa Robinson, secretary of the AmeriKenyan Running Club.
TCM first timer Lillian Chelimo, also a member of the AmeriKenyan Running Club, finished sixth and said that she was pleased with her performance.
“I didn’t like that there were so many hills, but when I come back next year I will be very familiar with the course,” she said.
For the third time in row, Somali-born Olympian Abdi Abdirahman claimed the U.S.A. Men’s 10-mile title with his time of 47:43. Kenyan-born Mbarak Hussein, who won the marathon in 2005 and 2006, ran the 10 mile and finished seventh.
“I am used to running marathons so the 10 mile was too short to make a serious move,” he said.
Nonetheless, he chose not to run the marathon because he just ran one a month ago in Osaka, Japan and was training for the Olympic trials in New York next month. He said he hoped to be at the Olympics next year, which will be going on during the 2008 Twin Cities Marathon.
“If not, I will be here to win,” Hussein said.
While the humidity was discouraging, the majority of the runners agreed that some support would have been encouraging. Notably missing in action were cheering African fans. No one waved their flags across the course and no one was cheering at the finish line.
“In Germany there were many Nandi ladies along the streets, and in London there were many Kikuyus,” said Fred Mogaka, a first timer at the marathon. “Here I did not see even one person!”
Mogaka, who won the Los Angeles Marathon in March, dropped out at approximately 20 miles due to lower back pain, as did the 2007 Grandma’s female marathon winner, Nigerian-born Mary Okor.
But these runners’ efforts were not in vain. The top ten finishers get cash rewards meaning that for the men, Mutinda will be awarded $15,000, Mbusya will get $10,000, David Chepkwony $7,000, Steve Muturi $5,000, Isaac Arusei $5,000, Ethiopian Abebe Yimer $4,000 and Thomas Omwenga $3,000. For the women Cherop will get $10,000 and Chelimo $4,000.