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Minnesota native outraces field to win Grandma's Marathon

Christopher Raabe was introduced to the marathon 20 years ago in Duluth. As a 10-year-old, he watched his dad, Bill, run his first Grandma's Marathon, the same year their family moved to Sauk Rapids, Minn., from Marshall, Minn.

Father and son were together again Saturday in Canal Park -- celebrating.

At the 33rd Grandma's Marathon, Christopher Raabe became the first American man to win the race since 1995 and the first native Minnesotan to win since 1982. It was his first victory in six career marathons, a personal best and it produced the most one-sided victory along the North Shore since 1980. The Washington, D.C., resident was first in 2 hours, 15 minutes and 13 seconds, while Kenya's Charles Kanyao was second in 2:18:36 on a significantly warm day that reached 75 degrees by 10 a.m.

"I always hoped my [two] children would get into running for recreation and to stay fit," said Bill Raabe, 54, also a Washington, D.C., resident who ran the Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon on Saturday. "For this to happen was very exciting. I had almost no energy today because I was so nervous for him. He works full time and trains so hard, so this means a lot."

Christopher Raabe, 30, who said he had an undistinguished running resume at Sauk Rapids High School and North Dakota State, took the lead near the 14-mile mark of the 26.2-mile race and got away from a pack of 14 other runners. He pushed directly down the middle of North Shore Drive, never looked behind, remained stoic and simply left the East Africa-dominated field in his wake in winning $10,900 from a purse of $100,000.

The winner had a one-minute lead in reaching the 19th mile at the Lester River and was two minutes ahead by 23 miles on Superior Street. It continued to build to the finish.

"I was hoping to improve on my place from last year or run faster," said Raabe, an application examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "After taking the lead I said, 'Hey, I've got a gap,' but I wasn't going too fast and I felt comfortable, so I said, 'Why not give it a shot.'

"I wanted to still be in the race when we reached town [at 19 miles]. The heat wasn't too bad. I held the pace and thankfully didn't fall apart. I got lucky."

There was little luck involved, just guts. A starting field of 6,366 runners faced 66 degrees and 78 percent humidity at the 7:30 a.m. start outside of Two Harbors -- 5,851 finished. As race organizers briefly considered canceling the race because of dangerously warm conditions, the runners headed out on a conservative pace, reaching the halfway mark in 1:07:47.

By 14 miles, Raabe pushed ahead. By the 15th mile he had pulled free. He had worn a stocking cap to a Friday press conference and had one on after the race, saying that he's always cold. The heat, he said, wasn't a problem. It was for others, including five Kenyans and three Ethiopians who placed second through ninth.

"[Raabe] just went and we couldn't keep up with him," said third-place finisher David Tuwei, 30, of Kapsabt, Kenya, who was second last year. "We thought the weather would affect him.

"It was hot. I got dizzy and had blurry vision and for a while couldn't see. I started to try to catch him, but he never looked like he was coming back."

Raabe has finished 12th, sixth and first in three Grandma's Marathons and was the top American finisher last year. His times in the race have improved from 2:22:32 to 2:17:35 to Saturday's best. His previous personal record was 2:17:01.

Runner-up Kanyao said he's been training in 80-degree temperatures at home in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, but the weather in Northeastern Minnesota was too much. It was a fourth straight warm-weather Grandma's Marathon after a week of temperatures in the 60s.

"It was hard for me," said Kanyao, 33, who earned $8,100. "This is a good, fast course and I was prepared to run faster, but all I did today was slow down."

Bill Raabe, a former elementary school teacher now employed by the National Education Association, finished the Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon in 1:25:24, then hustled up to Superior Street to watch his son come by. Then he got back to the Canal Park Drive finish line to catch some chants of "USA, USA."

The last American man to win Grandma's Marathon was Mark Curp of Lee's Summit, Mo., in 1995 in 2:15:23 and the last Minnesotan was course record-holder Dick Beardsley of Wayzata in 1982 in 2:14:49. The margin of victory was the largest since Garry Bjorklund finished 6:19 ahead of Robert Wallace in 1980.

Raabe, 5-foot-11 and 125 pounds, was caught in a downpour last October in the Twin Cities Marathon and had to drop out because of a severe chill causing hypothermia. Saturday's time qualified Raabe for the 2012 Olympic Trials.

His only claim to fame as a high schooler was a fourth place in the 1996 Minnesota Class AA cross-country meet behind winner Nic Matack of Duluth East.

"I saw my dad run the marathon, that's what got me started. And I knew I couldn't keep running 5Ks and 10Ks, I'm too slow," said Raabe.

Not Saturday.