Akor Going for Three Straight

     Friday’s News Tribune preview of Grandma’s Marathon focuses on two-time defending women’s champion Mary Akor and former three-time winner Lorraine Moller.

    Also, what was shaping up as a cool run along Lake Superior on Saturday morning has turned warm. Friday overnight temps are only to dip to 58-60 and Saturday is expected to bring early-morning fog, then sun and temperatures may hit 80 in the afternoon.

Mary Akor

Winning marathons was all Lorraine Moller knew. In her debut at 26.2 miles, she won the 1979 Grandma’s Marathon. She won her first eight marathons and nine of 10, and finished her elite career with 16 victories in 30 races.

The New Zealand Olympian is the only woman or man to win three straight Grandma’s Marathon titles (1979-81).

Mary Akor of Hawthorne, Calif., can tie that mark in Saturday’s 33rd annual race from Two Harbors to Duluth.

“I will try to win again, I’m in shape, but you never know about the marathon,” Akor said recently. “I have the faith to win. I am confident, but anything can happen on a certain day.”

And Akor, 32, has seen a few twists and turns since winning a second straight Grandma’s Marathon a year ago in 2 hours, 38 minutes and 50 seconds.

During a December marathon in Mexicali, Mexico, she says she was hit by a car with less than three miles to go and was taken to a hospital with painful bruises. She had been in second place.

On May 19, her father, a retired policeman, died at home in Nigeria within days of being diagnosed with diabetes at age 53.

Akor, the oldest of nine children, will attend a family ceremony for her father in Nigeria in July. She considered not coming to Duluth, yet felt an obligation as defending champion.

“It was a shocking day when I was told about my father, because it was so unexpected. I believe in God, and he’s going to be my strength,” said Akor, who came to America from Nigeria in 1993 and became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

This has been a typically busy year for a runner who trains 140-145 miles a week and loves to race. She’s completed three marathons in 2009 — placing sixth in the Houston Marathon (2:37:20) on Jan. 18; 13th in the Boston Marathon (2:40:35) on April 20; and first in the Vancouver Marathon (2:46:24) on May 3. Last fall, Akor was fourth in the Twin Cities Marathon (2:40:00) on Oct. 5 in St. Paul and second in the Detroit Free Press Marathon (2:41:32) on Oct. 19.

If the weather cooperates Saturday (and Akor likes warm temperatures), she hopes to run faster than 2:34. Her best is 2:33:50, run in 2006.

The Grandma’s Marathon wheelchair division has produced a number of winning streaks — Paul Van Winkel won three straight men’s titles twice and Saul Mendoza won five in a row (1999-2003), and Candace Cable and Amanda McGrory have each won three straight women’s titles, and Tami Oothoudt four in a row (1992-95). McGrory goes after four in a row Saturday.

Moller’s Mark

Moller was living in Minneapolis when she tried Grandma’s Marathon for the first time in 1979, winning in 2:37:37, breaking the year-old course mark by 20 minutes. She won in 1980 in 2:38:35 and broke her own course mark in 1981 in 2:29:36, the seventh-fastest women’s marathon in history at the time. That record stood at Grandma’s until 1999.

“It’s with great fondness that I remember my time at Grandma’s,” Moller said recently from home in Boulder, Colo. “I clicked with Grandma’s right away. It was an impulse to run a marathon, it just sort of happened, and it’s what got me started and I never looked back. I didn’t realize I was at the threshold of the running revolution.”

Moller, 54, says she was motivated by fellow New Zealander Allison Roe in 1981. Roe set the Boston Marathon women’s course record of 2:26:46 in April and Moller ran her first sub-2:30 marathon two months later in Duluth.

Leading up to that race, Moller said she often trained in the Twin Cities with age-group star Alex Ratelle of Edina, Minn., and then ran with Ratelle most of the way on race day. Ratelle, 56, finished a minute behind, in 2:30:40, which was an American record for men 55-59.

Moller went on to compete in the first four Summer Olympic marathons for women, earning the bronze medal in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, at age 37. She was the 1984 Boston Marathon victor and won three World Championships marathons and three Osaka (Japan) Marathons. Now, Akor can tie her mark of three straight wins in Duluth.

“It’s really nice to hear that other runners are still aiming for something that you’ve done,” said Moller, who is married and has an 8-year-old daughter and was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.

Moller is a part-time coach and co-founder of the Arthur Lydiard Foundation, which promotes and preserves the work of New Zealand’s Lydiard, recognized as one of the world’s best distance coaches. Her 2007 autobiography, “On the Wings of Mercury: The Lorraine Moller Story” is in its second printing.