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Akor struggles but wins historic third straight women's title

Mary Akor looked like a bobblehead doll as she approached the finish line at the 33rd annual Grandma's Marathon on Saturday.

Dizzy and delirious, the heat had gotten to Akor, but the 32-year-old from Hawthorne, Calif., had come too far to give up. After all, this race was for her dad.

Akor delivered a gutsy performance on Father's Day weekend, winning her record-tying third straight women's title and dedicating the race to her father, who died at home in Nigeria on May 19, just days after being diagnosed with diabetes. Akor finished in 2 hours, 36 minutes, 52 seconds -- just six seconds ahead of hard-charging runner-up Alina Ivanova of Russia. Akor joins New Zealand Olympian Lorraine Moller (1979-81) as the only woman or man to win three straight Grandma's Marathons.

"When I turned back and saw [Ivanova], I was like, 'Oh no, she's not going to beat me,'" said Akor, who earned $10,800. "I pushed even harder. I knew they were going to have to revive me anyway."

Akor wasn't kidding.

She exhausted all of her energy and collapsed as soon as she finished. She was taken by wheelchair to the medical tent, where she received intravenous fluids. Akor thrives on heat but Saturday's high temperatures and humidity eventually took their toll.

Akor began losing her bearings about 16 miles into the race and started missing water stations. At 20 miles, she and Kenyan Janet Cherobon dueled for the lead before Akor made a move with two miles to go. Cherobon faded and eventually joined Akor in the medical tent.

"Janet and I just kept pushing, back and forth, back and forth," Akor said. "I wasn't going to give up the pace, and that's why I passed out at the end."

Akor nearly passed out before the end. She appeared to run a few extra meters as she zigzagged her way to the finish. While Cherobon had dropped out, Ivanova surged on and saw Akor wobbling toward the finish.

"At the very end it was very obvious [Akor] was struggling," Ivanova said through a translator. "I think I felt a little more fresh, and perhaps I could have caught her if I had another 50 meters, but sport is sport and the fittest wins."

Robyn Friedman of Lambs Grove, Iowa, didn't run with the pack in the second half but reeled in Cherobon to take third in 2:38:03.

"It was great fun to run under 2:40 on a tough day," Friedman said of her first Grandma's Marathon. "The pace picked up, but I didn't want to do too many too fast and then crash and burn later, so I backed off and maintained pace. Catching Janet just gave me a new boost."

Still, the race belonged to Akor, who became a U.S. citizen in 2003. Friedman had beaten Akor in two previous meetings, but Akor seems to own Grandma's.

"To win any marathon is exciting, so kudos to Mary for doing it three straight times," Friedman said. "She's just a marathon horse. She's always tough and is the one to beat at Grandma's, that's for sure."

It was an emotional finish for the effervescent Akor. The oldest of nine children, she will attend a family ceremony for her father in Nigeria in July.

"I feel my father's presence with me when I run," Akor said. "He knows I love running. He knows how important this is to me. I'm really grateful I won this race. I won this race for him."