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By Kevin Pates, Published June 20 2010

Kemboi leads mass finish by Kenyans to win Grandma's Marathon

The welcoming arms of Grandma’s Marathon brought Kenyans Philemon Kemboi, Chris Kipyego and David Rutoh to Duluth. Kipyego, from Eldoret, says no American marathon is willing to invite as many Kenyans as the Duluth race, with 27 in the men’s elite field for Saturday’s 34th run along the North Shore.

The top three finishers were in town for the first time and Kemboi, from Maraba, and Rutoh, from Kericho, were making their United States debut.

They stole the show.

The trio broke from a pack of seven runners heading up Lemon Drop Hill, past the 22-mile mark, and cruised along London Road and Superior Street. The 26.2-mile race wasn’t decided until one mile remained, when Kemboi surged ahead on the way to his first victory in four career marathons in 2 hours, 15 minutes, 44 seconds. Kipyego was second, just 16 seconds back in 2:16:00 and Rutoh third in 2:16:03. Defending champion Christopher Raabe of Washington, D.C., was sixth in 2:17:43.

“We decided to push forward (with four miles to go). We talked to each other and were in agreement to pick up the pace,” Kemboi said in Swahili, through interpreter Steve Salowitz. “When I took the lead, I think (the other two Kenyans) were sort of surprised I had so much energy left. To win this race, in my first time in this country, brings me a lot of joy.”

The difference of 19 seconds among the top three was the closest mass finish since 1999 when Kenyan Andrew Musuva led four runners to the finish within 19 seconds of each other. Kenyans have won 10 of the past 15 Grandma’s Marathon men’s titles.

Kemboi, 36, earned $10,900 from a prize money purse of $100,000, Kipyego, 36, made $8,300 and Rutoh, 24, earned $5,800.

A decent running day was tempered by 8-18 mph west winds that hit the runners from the side or straight on. It was 63 degrees under cloudy skies at the 7:30 a.m. start just south of Two Harbors. It was still 63 at the Canal Park finish for the winner about 9:45 a.m. It was 65 by noon. There were 7,387 entrants and 5,625 timed finishers.

It was pack running through much of the race, going through the half-marathon mark in 1:07:47. There were still seven runners at 22 miles.

“I looked at my watch and said, ‘We are wasting our time here.’ I said to (Rutoh), ‘If you have the energy, let’s go.’ (Rutoh) was willing to push,” Kipyego said.

Rutoh had run a personal best of 2:10:31 a year go in Morocco, and Kemboi ran a best of 2:10:58 a year ago in France. Kipyego, who has trained the past three months in Mexico, ran a best of 2:12:56 in January in the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. They were ready to go.

They now eyed each other as the miles dwindled and the finish approached. Who would be the first to blink?

As the course takes a left-hand turn at Fifth Avenue West, to a steep downhill across Michigan Street and up across an I-35 overpass, Kemboi made a dash.

“I’ve had a back injury and for the first half of the race I ran conservatively,” Rutoh said. “When my back felt fine, we started to push and the other guys dropped back. When (Kemboi) broke away, I couldn’t do much about it because I don’t run well downhill.”

Kemboi, 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds, was encouraged to come to Duluth when 2009 runner-up Charles Kanyao of Nairobi said he thought Kemboi could win Grandma’s Marathon. Rutoh said he learned of the race by reading stories on two-time champion Wesly Ngetich of Kenya, who was killed during a disturbance in his homeland in 2008.

Kemboi said he’ll put his paycheck in the bank and help care for his family and relatives, who tend to farms at home, while he is allowed to run full time.

Entering Grandma’s Marathon, the top 32 men’s marathon times in the world this year were by African men, 17 from Kenya.