BELLINGHAM - One of the coldest and most blustery September weekends in recent Bellingham memory put a damper on several efforts to break race records in the seventh annual Bellingham Bay Marathon, but the unusual weather did not prevent thousands of friends and family members from celebrating nearly 3,000 finishers in three categories over several hours.
Two former Western Washington University standouts, marathon winner Steve DeKoker and half-marathon course record-setter Bennett Grimes, captured the competitive spirit of the event on Sunday, Sept 29.
"It is a record!" was the first thing an exultant Grimes shouted, a few feet past the finish line at Depot Market Square, after overcoming wind gusts of 30 mph and possibly higher along with temperatures in the low 50s and steady rain throughout his run. He was answering someone who called out a question about whether Grimes, who was a three--time Viking All-American, had met his record-setting goal.
Indeed, the 25-year-old Grimes knew full well by looking at his watch that he had beaten the half-marathon record by 37 seconds. He won his first Bellingham Bay competition by more than five minutes in 1 hour, 8 minutes and 21 seconds - a remarkable time considering the conditions.
"I'm excited because it's great to run here," said Grimes, who works with DeKoker at Brooks Running in Seattle. "I still feel I'm representing WWU and its teams."
DeKoker said he was on pace to set a course record until "the heavy wind just sucked the life out of me." Even so, he won his first Bellingham Bay Marathon in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 7 seconds - only 43 seconds shy of the race record.
DeKoker set an example of sheer determination - "my quads are on fire," he said at the finish - while fighting sustained winds of 10 to 20 mph to win by more than eight minutes over Danny Mackey, another elite Seattle runner who works for Brooks.
"There was some heavy, heavy wind in the middle of the race," said the 32-year-old DeKoker, who cut a striking figure in bright orange running shoes from Brooks. "I was a little unhappy (with his time), but considering the conditions, I'm happy with the effort."
"The wind broke the rhythm of the race," said Mackey, who emerged as a good example of spirit for his runners on Brooks Beast, the running team he coaches.
In the women's half marathon, nationally ranked runner Kristen Carter did not break her women's course record in the half-marathon, but she said she received a far more memorable honor.
"Nicole Brown put my medal around my neck," said Carter, one of best women ever to come out of Bellingham's rich running tradition and the women's winner of the Bellingham Bay half-marathon for the third consecutive year.
"I wasn't going for my half-marathon record because I'm in heavy training for the Columbus Marathon in three weeks," Carter, normally a marathon runner, said of one of the nation's most prestigious races. "But it meant so much to see Nicole from Girls on the Run (a program dear to Carter's heart for elementary school girls) give me my medal."
The 10-year-old Brown, who has become inspired by Carter's leadership, was among 800 volunteers of all ages who made possible what has become a significant Bellingham tradition for the nearly 3,000 entrants in the marathon, half-marathon and 5-kilometer runs.
Every runner received a medal. Few, however, could have been any more excited than Brown when she saw was her role model Carter finish first among the women's half-marathon runners, clocking 1 hour, 20 minutes and 22 seconds. Carter set the race record of 1:18.10 last year.
The women's marathon champion, former University of Washington standout Kate Bradshaw, beat every man except for DeKoker and Mackey while breaking the women's record by 7 minutes and 13 seconds.
"I'm excited," Bradshaw said. "My goals were to get a PR (personal record), set a course record, and win the race."
The 32-year-old Bradshaw, who won in 2 hours, 51 minutes and 45 seconds, received a rousing ovation at the finish line. Long before that, she had fairly quickly discarded her original heavy layers of clothing to finish as though she was ready for a day at the beach.
"It was no day at the beach, but you just got warmer as you get going," said Bradshaw, who won a conference 10,000 kilometer title in track and field while competing for the Huskies. "I was cold at the start (at Gooseberry Point on the Lummi Reservation). Conditions got better after mile 16."
Former Oregon State University runner Jennifer Macias of Spokane, a onetime Oregon high school state champion in the 1,500 and 3,000 kilometer races, finished fourth overall and second in the women's race. Her time of 2:58.24 also beat the women's race record of 2:58.58, set last year by Seattle's Holly McIIvaine.
Having women finish third and fourth with record-setting efforts in the marathon seemed especially fitting when race announcer Sam Alexander of Klick's Running and Walking informed the huge throng that "65 percent of our race field is women."
In the 5K race, Bellingham race record-holder Mark Burke defended his men's title in 17 minutes and 52 seconds, beating Derek Thornton by 25 seconds. Nooksack Valley High cross country coach Colin Buckley was third in 18:49, followed by women's champion Alma McMurtry in 19:49 and women's runner-up Julie Scheele in 19:48. McMurtry and Scheele are both Whatcom County runners.
The 5K did not produce any records, considering that it started at 7:30 a.m. in distinctly hostile conditions for a short race in early autumn.
Another strong effort was a runner-up finish in 1:13.46 by Eric Brill, another former WWU runner.
Race director David Penrose, in his final Bellingham Bay Marathon, said the harsh conditions did not discourage the runners at the start of the marathon, which also began at 7:30.
"We had 490 runners in the marathon, about 2,000 in the half-marathon and 460 in the 5K," Penrose said. "We had runners enter from 36 states and six countries. There was high-energy at the start of the marathon. The runners seemed pretty stoked and I saw a lot of smiling faces."
Penrose was himself stoked to receive entries from running partners Meyrick Jones, an amputee, and Brian Cowie, a blind competitor. Penrose also noted that Mel Preedy was competing in the marathon for the 434th time.
Indeed, well over five hours after the start of the marathon and three hours after the beginning of the half marathon, runners of all shapes and sizes were triumphantly crossing the finish line to receive their medals. Alexander contributed much to the spirit with hours of witty running commentary while naming virtually every finisher as he or she approached the finish line.
The race benefits numerous Whatcom County organizations devoted to youth sports and community recreation. A heavy percentage of volunteers come from the Bellingham Bay Swim Team, which founded the event, and Whatcom FC Rangers youth soccer.
"Our volunteers are the backbone of our success," said Penrose, figuring they had set a record all their own.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.