Community Sports

Marathon excites downtown Bellingham

The top two in the men’s race and the first two in the women’s competition all turned the eighth annual Bellingham Bay Marathon into a family affair to remember.

Repeat champion Steve DeKoker, a 33-year-old Western Washington University graduate who lives in Seattle, and runner-up Mark Burke, 27, from Bellingham, said they received cheers they’ll never forget from their wives and young daughters.

Tina DeKoker and 4-year-old Greta DeKoker hopped in and out of cars several times to cheer along the 26.2-mile course, as did Alyssa Burke and 6-year-old Makayla Burke. With such fast fathers, the girls are learning what running is all about.

Race timer Eric Larpenteur of said about 375 runners competed in the marathon, which started at Gooseberry Point and ended in ideal running conditions at Depot Market Square in downtown Bellingham on Sunday, Sept. 28.

“It was so inspirational to see them on the course,” said Steve DeKoker, who works for Brooks Running in Seattle. “Greta had a perfect smile. They saw me four or five times.”

Women’s champion Rika Hatachi, 47, of Coquitlam, B.C., said her first Bellingham Bay Marathon was especially memorable because her husband, Tatsuya Hatachi, 47, finished fourth overall and claimed the title for the men’s master’s division (40 and older).

Women’s runner-up Nicole Vander Wiele, 32, of Lynden, received a special 10th anniversary gift from her husband, Josh Vander Wiele, while providing an example of unselfishness for runners at Lynden Christian High School, where they are assistant coaches. He paced her the entire distance, one month after they actually celebrated their anniversary.

“It was fun to do it together,” said Nicole, who finished in 3 hours, 2 minutes and 35 seconds, only 11 seconds behind Rika Hatachi’s 3:02.24.

“This was special,” Nicole said. “Josh could have had a better time, but he wanted to pace me. I was happy for my place, but I was hoping for a better time. The course was more challenging than I expected. There are those long, gradual hills that take it out of you.”

Steve DeKoker, who became the first men’s repeat champion, said he was grateful that conditions were so much better than last year’s howling winds and rain. Even so, he still had to contend with the effects of a lower-calf injury he said he suffered about six weeks earlier.

“Probably a little bit,” he said when asked if the injury affected his chances for a personal best on the course. DeKoker finished in 2:30.51, 44 seconds slower than his remarkable effort last year.

“I was confident, but there are so many challenges in every marathon,” said DeKoker, a former WWU runner. “It’s never easy. I really wanted to stop and walk during that last 10K, but I kept running.”

Mark Burke, who won the previous two 5K races as part of the Bellingham Bay Marathon, was competing in only his third marathon anywhere.

“I boinked in my first two marathons, but this one felt good,” said Burke, who finished in a strong second in 2:35.17, 4 minutes and 26 seconds behin DeKoker. Burke was 12 minutes and 27 seconds ahead of third-place Paul Young of Bellevue, as only six runners broke the 3-hour mark.

Burke, who competed for Meridian High School, was pleased to have longtime Trojans coach Mike Holz on hand to provide valuable tips and support.

“Mike really helped me out,” Burke said. “He was there at the start for me. He told me just to have fun, relax and be patient. I wasn’t really here to compete with the other guys, but rather to compete with myself.”

As a novice marathoner, Burke said he learned a valuable lesson.

“I started out way too slow,” he said. “But if the weather is like this, I’ll be back.”

Holz was excited by his protege’s strong showing.

“I’m just happy and excited to see Mark has the passion for running,” Holz said. “He did so well today. I’m happy for him. He’s one of my few runners from Meridian who has competed in the marathon. It’s a very good feeling; it’s very rewarding.”

Women’s champion Rika Hatachi said the race fulfilled her expectations of a beautiful course and a strong showing.

“That’s great for a first race,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time here. I felt good all the way.”

Tatsuya Hatachi’s fourth-place time was 2:58.24. Bellingham’s Jeff Sanders was fifth overall in 2:59.51 as he was one of two locals to crack the first five men.


Bennett Grimes, a 2011 WWU graduate and a three-time All-American there, repeated his win in the half marathon portion of the event, which drew more than 1,800 registered entrants.

Grimes, who also works for Brooks Running in Seattle, won in 1:09.10 to become the first men’s repeat champion. He was exactly one minute slower than last year, but this was only his third half marathon race.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “I went out a little too aggressively too early. I was trying to see how well I could push myself through pain.”

Like DeKoker, Grimes said he loves Bellingham.

“I’m always happy to come back here,” he said.

Women’s half marathon winner Kristen Rohde — who led Mount Baker to three state high school cross country championships in 1999-2001 — could say the same about being happy to return.

Rohde, 30, a physical therapist who works in Portland, set a race record with an adjusted time of 1:17.27, nearly five minutes ahead of runner-up Susan Empey of Mercer Island. Rohde’s time was originally given as 1:19.41, but it was adjusted by 2 minutes and 14 seconds because she and several other runners were delayed by a train.

Rohde, also the 2010 half marathon champion and the 2012 runner-up, was frustrated by having to wait for the train at a crossing in south Bellingham.

“We had to wait for more than two minutes!” she said. “That was really frustrating, because I was on a record pace. We were also cut off by a semi truck for a few seconds (at another point). That stops your momentum and makes it tougher.”

But all’s well that ended well for Rohde, whose official time had to wait more than three hours to be determined when the entire event was over. Thanks to the miracle of modern timing technology, even trains can not prevent runners from being accurate times.

Race record holder Kristen Schafer set the race record of 1:18.10 as part of three consecutive wins through 2013 as Kristen Carter. Since she is rehabbing a knee injury, this time around she rode a pace bike for Kristen Rohde, since Schafer can ride a bike pain-free.


Bellingham’s Aaron Minsk won the 5K in 17 minutes, 2.9 seconds. The race, which started in 2008, covers 3.1 miles, the same as a typical high school cross country course. Derek Thornton was second in 17:19.7.

Seattle’s Zeytuna Aliyi won the women’s title in a race-record 18:38.5, followed by Bellingham’s Marti Riemer in 18:55.24.

They received their running medals from athletes from the Bellingham Bay Swim Team and the Whatcom FC Rangers soccer program, since they were among the beneficiaries of the entry fees.

Some 300 runners were entered in the 5K, meaning the entire three-race program attracted more than 2,600 runners. That was obvious from the lack of parking spaces on a Sunday morning in downtown Bellingham, which looked like nothing less than one of America’s busiest small cities.

With thousands of runners, family members and friends participating in the Bellingham Bay Marathon, Bellingham was definitely more than “The City of Subdued Excitement” on this particular sunny Sunday.