Local runners feel at home as marathon returns to San Luis Obispo

Runners familiar with the area win three of four events in the first race in SLO since 1986

jscroggin@thetribunenews.comApril 22, 2012 

Under the dark of predawn, Van McCarty took a look around at the crowd of 600-plus herded onto California Avenue and recognized a few faces.

Scanning people’s features under the street lamps just outside the gates of San Luis Obispo High to scope out the competition, the 41-year-old was sure he wasn’t the fastest man getting ready to run Sunday’s race.

Then McCarty hooked a left at his house, breezed up the street and picked up his medal in the San Luis Obispo Marathon as if it was the impulse buy on his jog down to the corner store for some milk.

Like other local winners at the event, McCarty just felt that much at home.

“I live right off Johnson, so I knew once I got off Johnson, I get a little bit of a break. So, I pushed it up there,” McCarty said.

“Every mile out there I pretty much knew, and that’s a huge mental factor.”

A local triathlon pro and ultra 50K runner, McCarty was the first-place finisher in the first 26.2-mile race since 1986 in his adopted home town, crossing the line at Madonna Inn in a personal best time of 2 hours, 38 minutes, 35 seconds.

Robert Heugly, 39, of Hanford was 4:33 behind in second place in a race McCarty led from the opening turn onto Monterey Street.

San Luis Obispo’s Carin Serba, 26, was the first woman to cross the finish line in 3:16.33. Former Cal Poly club triathlete Liz Johnson, 25, was the first woman to finish the concurrent half marathon, crossing in 1:26:01.

The only first-place winner without local ties was Matt Morales, a 22-year-old from Fresno who was the first runner to get to Madonna Ranch, crossing the line in 1:20:13 to take the half marathon.

“I really feel like we have one of the best courses in the United States right now in terms of a real high quality marathon course,” race director Samantha Pruitt said, “and our local athletes dominated that and rightfully so. This is their turf, they knew how to handle it, and they executed it beautifully.”

Though 2,800 combined people bought spots in both races, 2,268 actually competed — 609 in the marathon, 1,659 in the half marathon — numbers that Pruitt said she hopes to triple in bringing the race back for a second running next spring.

In a related fundraiser, the Team in Training organization reported 250 competitors collecting more than $500,000 in donations to go toward the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

McCarty is a former IronMan triathlete who’s backed off his triathlon schedule in recent years to focus more on 50K races. He won 50K events in San Francisco and Los Osos since November before placing sixth in another last month.

He was highly motivated to be the winner of Sunday’s inaugural race.

“I wanted to have a really strong race for being in San Luis and living here,” McCarty said. “I wanted to have a good showing. I didn’t expect to win. There’s always people faster than you.

“It won’t be the fastest time ever, but it will be the first one.”

Pruitt reported that approximately 65 percent of those who signed up for the event came from outside the county. Among those was Morales, a former football and baseball player from Redwood High in Visalia who turned to running after his prep sports career ended.

Morales had run seven half marathons before, but this was his first victory. He made it all the way through the finish line and out of the hospitality tent before anyone told him he’d finished first.

“I did? No way,” Morales said. “I didn’t know. There’s so many people going the full marathon, the half marathon. I had no idea what was going on. I thought I came in third.”

When results were announced, Serba actually was listed as the third female to finish the marathon, but after an examination of the times, it was confirmed that she did indeed place first.

In her first marathon, Serba took the lead among women for good by the 3-mile mark. The two listed ahead of her had actually run the half marathon instead.

Serba wasn’t expecting to win, but in the end, she was awarded the gift basket and wreath crown given to the other top finishers in a post-race podium ceremony.

“I just wanted to finish,” Serba said. “I’ve never really done a full marathon, so I was a little apprehensive and a little bit nervous. I would like to get a little more serious and follow a more serious training plan rather than just running around the neighborhood.”

As marathons go, this one was not built for fast times. Once the USA Track and Field certified course left downtown, it hit the hilly path of Orcutt Road.

For runners like McCarty, who have the ability to run better on inclines, it was a strategic part of the race, but the early hills had built a buzz among most competitors by the time they reached the finish line.

Johnson, the female winner of the Olympic Collegiate distance of the Wildflower Triathlon last year, was even caught a little off guard.

“I used to be on the Cal Poly triathlon team, and I’ve biked all the hills that we did,” Johnson said. “It was more difficult than it mapped out, and I forgot about a couple hills out there off Orcutt. It was a tough course, but a lot of good crowd support really helped me out.”

The support was appreciated by more than just the winners.

Many of the runners were first-timers with sights set less on winning or placing and more on finishing, crossing an accomplishment off their “bucket list.” Cal Poly athlete and former Nipomo High football and track and field standout Korben Boaz was one such finisher.

“It was great that the community and multiple organizations were able to come together to help get the marathon back in San Luis Obispo,” Boaz said. “It was scarce to have any stretch of road where neighbors and volunteers weren’t there yelling in support and urging us to press on, which helped a lot. ... I hope we can continue the marathon in future years.”

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