If there was a theme to this year’s San Luis Obispo Marathon, it had to be training with babies.
Both the male and female first-place finishers in Sunday’s 26.2-mile race had children born in the past year then pulled off victories in their returns to the racing scene.
Joe Thorne blew everyone away to take a wire-to-wire victory in the men’s division. The former University of Texas cross country All-American finished in 2 hours, 37 minutes and 59 seconds, beating the second-place finisher by nearly 16 minutes just 10 weeks and one day after his wife gave birth to a baby girl.
Female winner Sarah DiGeorge’s last race was the Boston Marathon five years ago. In the trying times since, she had a premature baby girl that died at eight months old after battling lung development complications and a healthy second child who’s nearly a year old.
Sporting a purple wristband on her left wrist in her departed daughter’s memory, DiGeorge took special meaning in her 3:26:22 first-place finish, which was a personal best in the four marathons she’s run.
“When she was in the hospital, I was always thinking I can’t wait for her to get better and be at the finish line,” DiGeorge said. “So, she was with me and I was running for her today.”
An Arroyo Grande resident originally from Northern California, DiGeorge was not expecting to win her first race since having 11-month-old daughter Summer, who was there to greet her at the finish line.
DiGeorge will next take part in a 10K fundraiser walk in Vacaville to raise money and awareness for the March of Dimes and premature birth. Then she’ll decide where to run next.
“Right now,” DiGeorge said, “I’m just going to enjoy this and give my husband a break from taking care of the baby while I’ve been out on three-hour runs.”
Perhaps even more impressive than the dominating performance of Thorne, an emerging triathlete and Arroyo Grande resident who will next appear in the Wildflower Triathlon Festival in early May, was the feat of his wife, Kara.
Formerly Kara June, the Santa Maria native, St. Joseph High graduate and former Fresno State distance running standout placed third in the women’s division of the half-marathon after giving birth in late January.
June placed sixth in the women’s steeplechase at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. She finished the half-marathon in 1:30:48, 5:20 behind top woman Sarah Hallas.
Hallas, 33, said she has completed roughly 30 half-marathons, but this was her first attempt at the SLO Marathon, which was only its second running after a 26-year hiatus.
Sam Denman, a New Zealander in town visiting family, was the first runner to cross the finish line Sunday, winning the half-marathon in 1:18:41.
In only his third half-marathon, Denman, 27, plans to next take on the London Marathon. Like Thorne, Denman also led from the first mile and never looked back, even though he spent most of his youth as a Kiwi participating in other sports.
“I played rugby, cricket and soccer,” Denman said. “Running was always a side sport, but I kind of want to take it a bit more seriously now.”
Thorne is aiming to qualify for the Half Ironman World Championships later this year, but most of Sunday’s 639 marathon and 2,277 half-marathon participants were recreational runners like Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, who ran the half-marathon for the second straight year to shouts of “Go Pres” and “Go Armstrong” from the supporters along the way.
“This is an awesome experience,” Armstrong said. “It’s great for the city of San Luis Obispo. … This is a wonderful, wonderful place to live.”
Each of the winners praised the roadside supporters for their encouragement as well, and complimented the organizers of the event.
“For its second year, it’s phenomenal,” Thorne said. “Usually, you don’t see this kind of logistic layout and having things dialed in after many years because they have to learn from all their mistakes.”
Said Denman: “The crowd and the runners are unbelievable. It gets you a real good buzz. So, well done to SLO County and everyone for putting this on.”