BELLINGHAM - For all the joy and jests expressed during what has become a treasured Bellingham tradition, the Fairhaven Runners Waterfront 15K attracts more than its share of seriously ambitious runners.
Of the top three men and first three women, five are working toward participating in their country's Olympic Marathon Trials and the other is a top-ranked master's runner in Canada.
The rockin' party adjacent to the start/finish line on the Village Green - always a social highlight of the running year - was especially festive on Saturday, Sept. 8, what with great weather and running to match.
Bennett Grimes, who was a three-time Division II All-America at Western Washington University, finished only 14 seconds behind the meet record for the eighth annual 9.3-mile event, breaking the tape to thunderous cheers in 48 minutes, 24.7 seconds.
Fairhaven Runners founder Steve Roguski - who used his microphone to recognize every runner across the finish line in a celebration of community - led a big cheer for Grimes, one of his former employees. Grimes, 24, wasn't far off the race mark of 48:10.1 set last year by former WWU teammate Jordan Welling, who now lives in Portland and couldn't make the race.
Blake Medhaug, a 24-year-old former Viking teammate of Grimes and Welling and also a former All-America, finished a strong second in 49:52.2, followed by 45-year-old Kevin O'Connor of Vancouver, B.C., in 50:18.0.
The top female finisher was 25-year-old Bellingham High graduate Kristen Carter, who was a three-time Division III All-American at Grove City (Pa.) College. Carter's impressive 54:43.9 was better than all but five men and showed why she is working toward another race in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Two-time Waterfront 15K champion Katherine Moore of Vancouver, B.C. was a strong second in 58:13.9 and Kristin Smart of Vancouver, B.C. was third in 1:00.8.2.
"I came here for a tempo-type effort," said Grimes, now working in business for Seattle's Brooks Sports. He ran the Waterfront 15K for the first time along with Medhaug, who recently earned his real estate license in Seattle.
"I didn't know what the race record was," said Grimes, who is working toward the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials along with Medhaug and Welling. "I went out harder for the first five miles."
"We're both getting back into serious training," said Medhaug. "We looked at this race as a good rust-buster."
O'Connor, a most impressive 45-year-old, ranks No. 1 among Canadian master's 10K and half-marathon runners and holds bests of 2:25 for the marathon and 1:06.52 for the half-marathon.
"I've just come back off an injury," said O'Connor, expressing gratification in his finish.
Carter was thrilled to beat last year's winning time by Vancouver's Shauna Skinner, who is expecting a baby and could not defend her title.
"Last year I finished second in this race to a hot-shot Canadian (Skinner)," said Carter, who beat her 10K personal best along the way by 35 seconds on Saturday. "I wanted to improve my time enough to beat her last year's winning time, too."
Carter did that impressively, beating Skinner's 55:17.1 last year by more than 33 seconds.
Carter recently returned to Bellingham after earning a master's degree in communications at Ohio State University. She has had a memorable 2012, going into the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials ranking 178th and finishing 112th.
"That's my dream, to make the U.S. Olympic Marathon team," said Carter, who noted her highly unusual yearly 10K drops of about 45 seconds caused plenty of conversation both at her high school alma mater and at Grove City College.
"I owe all my success to my coaches in college and to Bill McClement at Bellingham," Carter said. "Coach McClement always told me (while she was a good but not great high school runner) that my best running days were ahead of me. He doesn't burn out his runners, and I'm still as enthusiastic as ever.
"It was 30 years ago this year that Bill McClement won the Seattle Marathon, so I will be running in Seattle as a tribute to him," Carter said.
Carter was especially impressed with the encouragement and sportsmanship of the men in the race.
"The guys were fantastic, the way they encouraged me," Carter said, noting how man after man cheered her as she passed them. "'Go chase down the next guy,' some of them would tell me. I'm still running because I love it -- I'll never stop running."
Moore, who most recently won the women's Waterfront 15K title in 2009, is now 34 and still going strong.
"I wanted to win, but Kristen Carter went out hard," Moore said. "Her first mile was 54.5 and I was 54.8, but I knew I couldn't keep up that pace because I had figured on 6-minute miles."
Moore might have been speaking for everyone when she said, "I just love the scenery of this race (to Zuanich Point Park and back). It's so beautiful. I love hanging out in Fairhaven. I'm going to celebrate by going shopping!"
Smart, 27, has been seriously competing for only about 21/2 years, but she figures she has Canadian Olympic Marathon Trials potential.
"I played most team sports in high school and I have no running background in college," she said. "I'm definitely coming back here next year and I hope to win this race. I feel I have a long way to go (to fulfill her potential)."
Masters champions were O'Connor, 45, among the men and Bellingham's Jen Gallant, 42, among the women in 1:04.29.9. Grandmasters champions were Bellingham's Henry James, 54, in 1:00.04 and Vancouver's Catherine Dilworth in 1:03.42.
A Lynden newcomer, 28-year-old Leonard Randall from Kirkland's Northwest College, was fourth overall in 51:31 and won his division. Like so many in Saturday's race, he displayed plenty of potential.
"What's really wonderful is that we've had great weather for all eight years," said Genevie Roguski, Steve's wife and one of the busiest of the many people who helped put on the race.
Naturally, she knocked on wood when she made that boast. This annual September event is far too joyful to tempt fate.