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Jeff Kolpack, Published May 03 2014

Marathon memories: Runners reflect on event as it turns 10 years old

Fargo - It remains, perhaps, the quintessential photograph of the first nine Fargo Marathons. Meg Grindall, looking like a kid younger than her 25 years, crossing the finish line in the Fargodome while removing the white headphones connected to her pink iPod.

She looked astonished. She did not run track in high school or college. She entered the 2006 marathon with no expectation of winning.

“It was overwhelming,” she said earlier this week. “And of course I wasn’t expecting to do that well, on top of everything else. It’s kind of a blur.”

As the marathon reaches 10 years this weekend, the first nine provided drama and festivity unimaginable when Mark Knutson and Mike Almquist put together the first one in 2005. The temperature was in the 30s with snow flurries that morning when runners gathered on the Main Avenue Bridge between Fargo and Moorhead.

The race is returning to the bridge for the 10th annual. As for the first nine: steady but phenomenal growth.

“If you equate it to somebody opening up a business and say over 10 years you basically grew 10-fold in 10 years in business, I’d say it’s been pretty manageable,” said race director Mark Knutson. “We’ve been fortunate.”

These days, Grindall is living in Indianapolis with thoughts of training for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. She qualified for the 2012 Trials with a personal record of 2:45.15.

Her winning time in Fargo was 3:04.44.

“You think of Meg Grindall who came out of nowhere,” Knutson said. “Now you see her: She’s gone from this little girl to a strong runner.”

Knutson also points to Lisa Dyer, another Moorhead runner who turned in a 2:45.15 in 2012. Any sub-2:50 for a female marathon runner is elite stuff.

When it came to elite drama, nobody did it better than Eric Sondag from Grand Forks in 2008.

Like Grindall, he came from out of nowhere and rallied past Kenyan John Rotich in the last three miles to win.

“It was one of those things that developed,” Sondag said this week. “When I saw him coming back, then it became very obvious that I was going to catch him.”

The Fargo Marathon win was actually part of Sondag’s five-year training plan that began late in 2005 to win a major event in his home state. His first marathon was in 2007.

Knutson remembers getting Sondag’s elite runner application and not immediately giving him the OK. He noted Sondag had yet to turn in a marathon time suitable for that level.

The two e-mailed back and forth, Knutson said, with the race director finally agreeing to it.

“That was a good lesson for me,” Knutson said. “I don’t know if that was his way of saying I’m going to show you but he did. It was great to see him win it that year.”

Injuries since the 2008 win prevented Sondag from returning to that level. But he’ll always have that memory of the last three miles with thousands of fans cheering him on.

“For me, that surpassed anything that I ever accomplished in college,” he said. “Just the way the whole thing played out with the dramatic elements of the race. I guess I caught lightning in a bottle there.”

This year, Sondag is returning to the event in the half-marathon – he’s doing it with his 8-year-old son Owen.

“He’s done 12 miles on a treadmill so he’s a mental monster like his dad,” Eric said.

In 2005, there were 2,641 participants. Last year, there were 23,941.

That’s monster growth.

“What they’ve developed over a 10-year period is really amazing,” Sondag said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia