2019 Grandma’s Marathon: Finding the Finish Line

The 2019 Grandma’s Marathon was a wonderful experience for competitors and spectators alike, showcasing one of the most unique and dramatic runs in the history of the event. 

The favorite, Boniface (“Bones”) Kongin, had been nursing a sore and lumpy Achilles’ tendon since the 2019 Pittsburg Marathon. It was definitely possible that the injury could rise to the level of slowing him down enough to keep him from winning the 2019 Grandma’s Marathon and setting a new course record.

So, prior to Grandma’s Marathon, Bones came to my physical therapy practice to try and reduce the pain and stiffness in his heal. I set him up with various rehabilitation techniques including stretching, deep soft tissue release, dry needling with electrical stimulation, and supportive taping. I was also having him run on the LightSpeed Lift body weight support system to test and build his speed without over stressing the injury. Once he was able to comfortably run at a 4:20/mile pace using the LightSpeed Lift, Bones and I were looking at the Grandma’s Marathon date with confidence. However, 26.2 miles on pavement was going to put a lot of stress on the tendon.

When the day of the event came, a single strip of tape running vertically up Bones’ right calf was the only hint of potential trouble. Starting behind the elite pack, he broke away at mile marker three. Blisteringly fast, he made it look easy. By mile 16, he was leading the entire group by a whole mile — his breathing quiet, his stride smooth, and his posture tall. 

Throughout the first 19 miles, radio announcers were marveling at his speed and apparent comfort, but speculated about when and if “the wheels would come off.” As Bones passed through miles 21 and 22, he slowed noticeably and even stopped several times to rub his right calf and left hamstring. He poured water on his heel to cool it down. He looked back to see if anyone was catching him. The lead he had established was so gaping that even with his dramatic slowing, there was no competitor was in sight. 

Just ahead loomed Lemon Drop Hill, which had potential to be the final straw for his tendon. The race turned from a romp of pure poetic motion to a test of willpower and grit. Bones burst up the hill without a visible hitch. 

His right calf throbbed with pain. His left hamstring muscles cramped. Everyone running a marathon hurts at this point and must find a way to get to the finish line. Though, most of us are not moving with the intensity required to run at 5-6 minute miles. 

His face remained calm and impassive. His focus was intense and palpable. He crossed the finish line with a time of 2:11:56 and immediately went to the ground to give his legs a brief rest. Once he got up, he grabbed the Kenyan flag and draped it proudly over his shoulders. The 2019 Grandma's Marathon champion!

Two days after the race, I spoke with Bones about his stellar performance. I asked what powers he called on to finish the final 5 miles at the ridiculous pace he needed to get below a 2:12. He told me that running at full effort on days when he doesn’t feel 100% help build a reserve and confidence. Chasing after better runners in his native country of Kenya, especially when he was coming up the ranks taught him to persevere even though victory wasn’t possible. He makes it a point to always put out the best without ever showing fatigue, pain or weakness. Of course, he recounted running in some of the notoriously bad weather Duluth’s springtime is so well known for and coined it “character sharpening.”

Each of us face daily decisions about whether we should put out our best efforts. Final results are built through consistency, as well as just plain showing up and putting in the work even when its not 100% perfect. Using LightSpeed Lift to pull through those tough workouts can help you reach your goals and give you the faith and solid training you need to reach peak performance.