Ultra-marathoner Zach Bitter cruises to victory in fifth-annual SLO Marathon

Runners hit the pavement at the 2016 SLO Marathon and half marathon

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Van McCarty was the winner of the inaugural SLO Marathon, so he knows exactly what it takes to come out on top in the hilly 26.2-mile race.

On Sunday in the event’s fifth year, however, the San Luis Obispo resident admitted setting his sights on another podium would be a bit of a long shot.

Leading the pack was world-class ultra-marathoner Zach Bitter, running the race for the first time. Bitter indeed cruised to the overall victory, navigating the course in 2 hours, 36 minutes, 14 seconds, beating out second-place finisher Bihama Vedaste by nearly four minutes and McCarty by almost six.

“He didn’t go out really fast, so I was able to keep him in sight for five or six miles, and then he kind of just started creeping away, creeping away,” the 45-year-old McCarty said. “But yeah, he was great, he ran really well.”

Bitter, of Davis, is currently training for the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, the world’s oldest ultramarathon that covers 56 miles between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and he was already planning to be in town for the SLO Marathon with one of his sponsors, Altra footwear. So he asked if he could run the race, as well.

“I got to mix business with pleasure and do the race, too,” he said. “So it was a fun race, too.”

Bitter is the world-record holder in the 12 hours (101.7 miles) and has American records in the 125-mile, 100-mile races and is a USATF Road National Champion in the 50 mile and 100K. So Sunday’s race was a nice, easy stroll in the park.

“I definitely was pushing hard and getting some good work in, but it was definitely kind of a tune up I would say for Comrades,” he said.

He said the rolling hills of the course that started at San Luis Obispo High School, wound through downtown before heading south out of town and finishing on the Madonna Inn grounds are similar to what he’ll face in South Africa.

“The last few weekends I’ve been trying to do events like this where I can go out and do a real nice hard tempo and push effort for that,” Bitter said. “… A lot of climbing and descending on paved roads, so I was able to go out there and just kind of get in a pretty quick pace going and kind of hold onto it and get that good workout in.”

As for McCarty, he had another good reason not to expect to cross the finish line first. He competed in the Wildflower triathlon Saturday at Lake San Antonio.

“So running back-to-back races I had really low expectations today,” said McCarty, who has competed in four of the five SLO Marathons and has a runner-up finish in 2012 and a seventh-place finish to add to his résumé. “So to say I’m surprised is an understatement, for sure.”

On the women’s side, another first-time SLO Marathon competitor took home honors — a first-time marathoner at that. San Mateo’s Maggie Yount won the race in a course-record time of 2:50.05, besting Moreno Valley’s Carri Arrieta (3:19.51) and San Luis Obispo’s Shelby Lowe (3:24.16).

“It was awesome,” Yount said. “It was beautiful, it was hilly, definitely a hard-earned win.”

Yount isn’t exactly a novice, though. She ran competitively at Division III at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo., and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2013. She also set world-record times while pushing a stroller in the 5K and 10K last year.

“I’ll take it,” she said of the win in her first marathon.

After the race, Arroyo Grande High boys cross country coach Sean Ricketts was inducted into the SLO Marathon Hall of Fame for his contributions to the Central Coast running community. Dr. Paul Spangler, a longtime San Luis Obispo resident and former chief surgeon at the California Men’s Colony and longtime running advocate who took up the sport at the age of 67, was inducted posthumously. Spangler, who holds the American record for 90 year olds in every metric distance between 800 meters and 10,000 meters, died on one of his seven-mile training runs in 1994 shortly after turning 95.

“Both have led by example and have made noteworthy and inspirational contributions to our sport, particularly locally to help make the San Luis Obispo area such an ideal running and endurance community for all,” said Samantha Pruitt, founder and CEO of Race SLO Founder, the event’s organizer.

SLO Marathon results

Men’s marathon top 3

1. Zach Bitter, Davis, 2:36.14

2. Bihama Vedaste, San Jose, 2:40.53

3. Van McCarty, San Luis Obispo, 2:42.33

Women’s marathon top 3

1. Maggie Yount, San Mateo, 2:50.05

2. Carri Arrieta, Moreno Valley, 3:19.51

3. Shelby Lowe, San Luis Obispo, 3:24.16

Men’s half marathon top 3

1. Joe Thorne, Grover Beach, 1:10.49

2. Brandon Messerly, San Luis Obispo, 1:14.48

3. Juan Ricardo Jaquez, Lerdo Durango, 1:15.46

Women’s half marathon top 3

1. Heather McWhirter, Pacific Grove, 1:22.57

2. Erin Tracht, San Luis Obispo, 1:27.55

3. Makely Lyon, Oakland, 1:28.28