The runners were bleary-eyed but upbeat Sunday morning in the Plaza Extra West parking lot. The start time for the 11th Annual St. Croix International Marathon was set for 5 a.m., which means these athletes rolled out of bed sometime around 3:30 a.m.
Not one of them complained, however. Many of them had been looking forward to this all year.
Every year, the St. Croix marathon draws a small, but highly enthusiastic group of competitors from around the country to the still-dark streets of St. Croix’s west end.
Peter Bennett and Yen Nguyen, a couple from Texas, said they came down as part of their ongoing quest to run a marathon in 100 different countries. They count the U.S. Virgin Islands as number 59.
Susan Daley of Chicago, Il., said she tries to make it down for the race every winter. She has run 440 marathons since 1991, and the St. Croix race is one of her favorites because of the beauty of the course and the friendliness of race organizers, she said.
Not much of that beauty could be seen when the starting whistle blew, however. As the pack of 20 runners began their 26.2 mile trek west along Queen Mary Highway, the road was lit only by the occasional streetlight and the flashing lights of their police escort.
After an hour, dawn broke and the runners got their first glimpse of the Caribbean sunrise. By this point, the pack had broken up and runners were scattered all along the coastal road, from Frederiksted in the south all the way to Ham’s Bluff.
First the sky turned a pastel purple, then a burning orange as the sun rose higher. Few fans were on the road at this hour, so the ocean supplied the cheering. The sound of the waves lapping the beach was a constant companion.
Race organizer Wallace Williams said the beauty of the course is the race’s main draw. He chose this route to make the most of the scenery, but also because it’s a fairly easy run. Unlike many places in the Virgin Islands, the west end of St. Croix is mostly flat – except for the potholes, of course.
“This year we had some challenges,” Williams said, referring to the dire condition of the coastal road near Butler’s Bay and up to Ham’s Bluff. “That road is in pretty bad shape. That made it an adventure run, but people didn’t seem to care or complain too much.”
Ana Gutierrez Whittman, who competed in the marathon for the U.S. Virgin Islands in the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona, joked that it was a cross-country marathon. She said there were a few times during the race where she had to stop and knock the mud off her shoes because it was getting too heavy, but ultimately it didn’t slow her down too much. She finished first in the women’s race with a time of 3:33:20.
She described the marathon course as one of the most beautiful she’d seen and said the race could develop into a major tourist attraction if it were better supported by the government.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I really would love to promote this thing.”
J.D. Nielson, winner of the men’s race, said he was surprised by how beautiful the course was. This was his first marathon and he had chosen it based more on the date than the location. He only began training this year, so he wanted a race in the winter to give him the most time to prepare.
Also, it just happened to fall on his girlfriend’s birthday.
“I thought we’d kill two birds with one stone,” he joked. “Get a marathon in and celebrate her birthday.”
The couple traveled from their home in Parachute, Colo., and were impressed both by the views and by the support they received from the fans and the race staff.
“I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to run,” he said. “Just to see the ocean while you’re running, the energy you draw from the rainforest, and all the people cheering along the way, it was just amazing.”
Nielson won the men’s race with a time of 3:01:51. He was followed by Calvin Dallas in second and Mike Klein in third with times of 3:30:01 and 3:47:16 respectively.
In the women’s race, Gutierrez Whittman was followed by Sissel Holloway at 3:56:08. Christine Mette, racing on her 60th birthday, took third place with a time of 5:04:15.
Another 60 runners took part in a half-marathon along the same course Sunday morning.
Diego Panesso and Arbey Escobar, both from Columbia, finished first and second respectively with times of 1:18:26 and 1:18:35. Juan Robles of the Virgin Islands took third with a time of 1:18:42.
In the women’s race, Ruth Ann David finished first with a time of 1:32:52, followed by Theresa Harper at 1:40:01 and Ashley Benson at 1:46:29.
Full results are available online at www.virginislandspace.org.