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'I really wanted to finish the race': Duluth’s Cernohous was adamant about finishing half-marathon despite collapsing near finish line

Tim Cernohous of Duluth is helped to the finish line of Garry Bjorklund Marathon after experiencing a significant medical event on the course Saturday, June 17, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

DULUTH — Runners will do just about anything to get across the finish line.

Tim Cernohous took that determination to the extreme Saturday morning. Effectively dead for a brief period of time after collapsing on Canal Park Drive, the 33-year-old Duluthian revived, recovered and completed his seventh consecutive Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.

"I'm a pretty driven individual and I had a goal, and I'd come that whole way," Cernohous said Sunday. "I didn't want to be disqualified. I didn't want to be pushed across. I wanted to get a time. I really wanted to finish the race, and I wanted to finish it under my own power."

Cernohous was about 30 yards from the line when he passed out. A nearby runner stopped to help, and members of the Duluth Fire Department, working the course as first responders, arrived immediately. They applied chest compressions to Cernohous, who didn't have a pulse, before using a defibrillator to further assess the situation. It showed no shock was needed based on the rhythm of his heart.

Remarkably, Cernohous abruptly came to, scrambled to his feet and told the medical team around him, "Let's go — I want to finish the race."

Not quite.

"They said, 'You're not going anywhere, buddy,'" Cernohous said.

He eventually talked his way into a compromise. Cernohous didn't want to be loaded onto a gurney, nor did he have any interest in a wheelchair. So the entire group walked the remaining distance together, getting Cernohous through in 1 hour, 51 minutes and 47 seconds. His goal time was 1:44, and he was on pace to be close, maybe a few minutes shy.

On a warm, humid morning, Cernohous made sure to utilize the water stations. He started to hit the wall 10 miles in, and "really started feeling it at mile 12." From there, he atypically walked a couple times. When a spectator shouted words of encouragement, Cernohous couldn't resist. He sped up.

Something similar happened at the 2015 Bjorklund. That year, Cernohous also got into trouble after attempting a late charge, buoyed by cheering. He collapsed that time, too.

Saturday, Cernohous began to experience the tell-tale sign — double vision — upon reaching the closing stretch.

"I thought, 'Oh, no, not again'" he said. "That's probably the last thing I remember. Then I woke up, opened my eyes and there are all these people around me. I thought, 'What the heck is going on?'"

All told, a mere four minutes elapsed from the time Cernohous collapsed until he completed the race. For that, he was deeply appreciative of the first responders and their quick, decisive action. He one day hopes to get their perspective on what transpired.

After visiting the medical tent, Cernohous went to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center. Incidentally, that's also where he and his wife, Jill Cernohous, work, both as pharmacists. There, additional tests were conducted, including echocardiography. Doctors didn't find anything significant, so the reasoning for Cernohous' incident Saturday isn't fully known.

"The biggest thing they kind of think is maybe overexertion and dehydration," he said.

Cernohous was feeling fine Sunday. He has no plans to scale back his running. Being active "is who I am." That includes hunting and hiking — last week he knocked out 57 miles of the Allegheny 100 Hiking Challenge on the North Country National Scenic Trail before adverse weather forced his group off the trail.

While some have lobbied Cernohous to slow down, telling him he already has two strikes, he and his wife aren't overly concerned. Cernohous will go in for a stress test in the near future and, if results are good, he'll be back at it.

"It's not so much that I'm nervous, but we just need to train a little better and be better prepared," Jill said.

Grandma's does it again

About the best news Shane Bauer, executive director of Grandma's Marathon, could report Sunday was this:

"I don't have much news for ya," he said.

It was, like so many of the previous 40 Grandma's, an all-but-flawless race week. Even the weather cooperated, despite a handful of times Saturday when it looked like rain, and possibly thunderstorms, could develop. They never materialized.

Instead, runners and spectators alike basked in a beautiful day, if a bit muggy. They witnessed Kenya's Elisha Barno become the first man to three-peat at Minnesota's oldest marathon. And they watched Kara Goucher come home to race, returning to competition for the first time since February 2016. The 1996 Duluth East graduate was fifth in the women's half-marathon, coming through in 1:15:12, about what she expected.

She received a hero's welcome.

"It was so cool that she chose to pick up her running career at a Grandma's Marathon event," Bauer said. "It added so much."

For the first time, Bauer spent race morning at the start lines. After seeing the Bjorklund off, he headed for Two Harbors, making a stop at mile marker 8. It's near there, a mile inland, that longtime Grandma's participant Kerry Staats, who died in January at 51 after battling ALS, will be buried today, along with the medal from his final Grandma's (2013), one from the Chicago Marathon, a running bag and two beers.

Bauer placed a memorial, with a bouquet of flowers, at the spot, where Staats' wife, Charlene, and daughter, Anna, would have passed by while running the marathon and half-marathon, respectively, Saturday.

"Our runners aren't just numbers to us," Bauer said. "Every one of them has a story, and we want to take care of them the best we can. Twenty-two years in a row and wanting to be buried essentially on the race course is absolutely awesome to me."

Looking ahead

The 42nd Grandma's Marathon and 28th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon will take place June 16, 2018. Registration for both events opens Oct. 1. For the first time, Bjorklund entries will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis — instead of via lottery.

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