BELLINGHAM -- If Amelia Bethke is "nice to my knees," as she puts it, she figures they won't be nearly as nice to other runners as she continues to try ever longer races.
"Wow, she came out of nowhere," more than one fan observed as Bethke admittedly surprised herself by winning the women's division - and finishing eighth overall among 271 entrants - in the third annual Lake Padden Trail Half on Saturday, Oct. 19.
Bethke's victory by 15 seconds over Bellingham professional runner Maria Dalzot in an exciting battle of 25-year-olds, however, would not have totally shocked those who recalled what a standout Bethke was as a diminutive but highly spirited freshman on Sehome's first girls' cross country state title team 11 years ago.
Another professional runner, event favorite 27-year-old Mario Mendoza of Bend, Ore., won the men's championship of the 13.1-mile race in 1 hour, 23 minutes, 18 seconds. Former Sehome standout Dusty Caseria, who won the first two Trail Half races, was a solid second in 1:24.29.
Bethke, who ran four years for the Mariners, helped to establish the school's rich 21st century tradition as a distance running powerhouse before she went off to join the sailing team, play Ultimate Frisbee and study biology at Santa Clara University. Not long after graduation, however, she underwent knee surgery and now says she has to "keep my knees from complaining."
"I did surprise myself today, because for the last two weeks I've been preparing to move to Port Angeles for my new job with the Washington Conversation Corps," said Bethke, pointing out how hectic life has been. "But I absolutely love running trails, and I love these Lake Padden horse trails."
That was the general feeling among the runners, who enjoyed conditions about as close to as good as they get on a late October morning at Lake Padden.
Ten-year-old Teigen Detta, a fifth-grader at Harmony Elementary, captured the spirit of what is becoming a yet another respected community running tradition in one of the Northwest's most enthusiastic running communities.
"I just wish there was more mud!" said Teigen, who won the kids' 2K race.
Race director Al Coyle, a longtime local running enthusiast who turned 50 the day before, concurred with spunky little Teigen, who eventually hopes to enjoy girls' sports at Mount Baker High.
"We actually like mud because it adds to the challenge of the race," Coyle said. "But the fog helps make this cool. I couldn't ask for a better way to celebrate my birthday than to see all these runners having such a great time. I grew up enjoying Lake Padden and to see all this makes it a wonderful day."
The 100 percent volunteer-aided race benefited Rebound of Whatcom County, a seven-year-old Bellingham-based organization that helps families living below the poverty line.
Four months ago, Bethke delighted herself with a second-place overall finish in the Chuckanut 30K race as part of the annual 50K event.
"I've never run a half-marathon," said Bethke, whose time was 1:33.41. "But I think the longer, the better. I was in phenomenal shape last summer. Now I'm going to try running ultra races to see how I do."
Bethke said she was thrilled to catch and pass Dalzot for the first time "on the last part of the horse trails" in the woods, far from the eyes of the fans.
Mendoza was good enough to place fourth in the Division I West Coast Conference cross country championships as a senior at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.
"This was the first time I've run in Bellingham," said Mendoza. "It's a beautiful course, a really good course. My eventual goal in running is to compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials."
Caseria, 26, also helped Sehome to a historic boys' state cross country title. He placed fifth in a 50K six days earlier in Canmore, Alberta, but he couldn't resist running at Lake Padden and said he wasn't bothered by his second-place finish to Mendoza.
"It was actually cool to have a strong runner ahead of me for the entire race," said Caseria, who retained his course record of 1:21.54. "The last two years, I was way ahead. It's nice to test yourself against better guys."
Caseria, an engineer for Heath Tecna, said he'll always love running, "But I don't want to be consumed by it. I want to try different things."
Caseria's girlfriend, Emily Morehouse of Bellingham, finished fourth among the women in 1:45.57 after winning the Baker Lake 50K two weeks earlier and participating in several other recent weekend events. She was 38 seconds behind 43-year-old Jen Gallant of Bellingham, third among the women and also the female master's champion.
"I'm really happy," said Gallant, who finished an impressive 20th overall. "That's the best I've done. I guess I'm getting better as I get older."
The top men's masters runner was Seattle's Adam Hewey, who ran 1:33.37 for seventh overall. The other top placers were Conner Shelton of Maple Falls in 1:27.40 for third, followed by Bellingham's Alex Kurtis in 1:27.53, Bellingham's Benjamin Scherrer in 1:29.10 and Bellingham's Tyler Mitchell in 1:33.15.
Shelton, 20, was the youngest finisher among the top 20 runners.
Sharon Aller, the executive director of Rebound of Whatcom County, wanted to thank all the runners, sponsors and volunteers, many of whom serve her social welfare organization.
"It's incredibly inspiring to our team (of staff and volunteers) to see all this," she said. "I'm extremely thankful to everyone."
TOP 5 MEN
Pl. Runner Time
1. Mario Mendoza 1:23.18
2. Dusty Caseria 1:24.29
3. Conner Shelton 1:27.40
4. Alex Kurtis 1:27.53
5. Benjamin Scherrer 1:29.10
TOP 5 WOMEN
Pl. Runner Time
1. Amelia Bethke 1:33.41
2. Maria Dalzot 1:33.56
3. Jen Gallant 1:45.19
4. Emily Morehouse 1:45.57
5. Katie Bates 1:46.58