Ellerbe Marathon champ Baxley: ‘I’m shocked’

Hamlet woman sets county record; Vanuga wins overall

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Complete results
* Age group awards
* Photos – Set 1 (start, top 8 and finish) – Set 2 (the field)
Rain or shine, marathon will go on
* 2015 running schedule

ELLERBE — Rosemary Baxley talked about redemption.

Last year, she ran through injury and knew by the 6-mile point that it simply wasn’t her day. She was right, and trudged through the final 20 miles of the Ellerbe countryside to finish in 60th place in a humbling 5 hours, 18 minutes and 14 seconds.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Levi Vanuga eyes the finish line at the three-hour mark of the 24th annual Ellerbe Marathon.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Levi Vanuga eyes the finish line at the three-hour mark of the 24th annual Ellerbe Marathon.

On Saturday, she made up for it. On Saturday, she made history. The 52-year-old Hamlet woman held off a hard-charging Stephanie Hill in the second half of the course to win the women’s title on Saturday in the 24th annual Ellerbe Marathon. Baxley improved 39 spots from last year’s finish, placing 21st, and knocked nearly a full hour off her time.

Baxley won on Saturday in 4 hours, 20 minutes and 20.5 seconds. Hill, 37, of Greensboro, 53 seconds behind in 4:21:17.6. Chris Kubiak, 52, of Rockingham, earned a third-place finish in 4:37:43.6. Both Baxley and Kubiak are members of the Mangum Track Club, the organization charged with hosting the annual footrace.

Baxley and 72 other official finishers, including six self-timed early starters, endured a starting time temperature of 46 degrees with a light rain that sometimes became much heavier. Two hours and 40 minutes in the race, and again at about the four-hour mark, the skies open up to drench the runners. But the rain also helped keep the forecasted high of 70 degrees away, long enough perhaps to help everyone breathe that much better to the finish line.

With the win, Baxley also was recognized as the top county female and posted the fastest time on the course by a Richmond County woman, breaking the previous standard set in 2013 by Sherri Caulder. It was the race’s closest finish in the women’s field since Tracy Christian’s 28-second win over Amanda Sloan in 2005.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Don Covington (in hat), of Rockingham, is the only runner to have finished all 24 Ellerbe Marathon events.

Stephanie Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Don Covington (in hat), of Rockingham, is the only runner to have finished all 24 Ellerbe Marathon events.

“I’m happy, Baxley said holding the pottery distributed as awards, including the piece custom-crafted by fellow marathoner Irene Russell. “I’m shocked.”

Before the event, and even through it, Baxley maintained an innocent insistence that she had planned to run Saturday’s race easy — almost more of a training run than a race. As she approached the 10K mark at the second aid station, she knew she was the first female and literally apologized for it. It was a place, Baxley said, she had no intention of staying.

History, however, had other plans. While Hill, Kubiak and Justine Seabolt (fourth, 4:46:06.1) continued the hunt, Baxley resumed what seemed to be a leisurely pace 0f 9:56.3 per mile. Steady throughout, Baxley started in front and finished there.

The men’s race was something else altogether. From the start, three-time champion Brian Kistner let the field know he was ready for a fourth. The 44-year-old Florence, S.C. runner and Mangum Track Club member knew the course and his strengths and weaknesses. Between the time the field left the start line on Grassy Island Road in front of the Mount Pleasant Community Club and when it turned right onto Ballard Street a couple miles later, in front of Ellerbe Middle School, Kastner enjoyed a 20-meter lead on a chase pack that included 25-year-old Levi Vanuga, a soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, and 41-year-old Rich Riopel, of Morganville, N.J.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Rich Riopel, of New Jersey, gave chase to leader Levi Vanuga but couldn't quite reel him in.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Rich Riopel, of New Jersey, gave chase to leader Levi Vanuga but couldn’t quite reel him in.

Vanuga, making up for lost time as he was late to the start, hit the first aid station in front of Carolina Farm Credit took time to walk and absorb the liquid refreshment offered. Others maintained a more runner-like pace. The move, it seemed, put Vanuga at a disadvantage and perhaps showed others a weakness.

But it was all part of his strategy. As the leaders approached the 10K mark at Aid Station 2, Vanuga had taken the lead. Kistner was second and Riopel had moved into third — but was pulling Kistner in.

Vanuga made the turn onto Concord Church Road and at the intersection with the largely unnoticed Green Acres Lane — one of several inclines on the day — he held held a commanding 1-minute, 50-second lead over Kistner. Riopel was another 56 seconds behind Kistner, while 54-year-old Charles Bouchard, of Hudson, was a mere 39 seconds behind Riopel. Chas Willimon, 34, of Cornelius, was fifth at this point, only 12 seconds behind Bouchard.

Vanuga crested the top of the largest hill of the day — and one of the steepest — in 1:49:52. Riopel had since passed Kistner and knew he had plenty of time to catch the leader. At the top of the hill at Aid Station 5, he looked at his watch: 1:53:32 — a full 3 minutes and 40 seconds behind Vanuga. There was time, and while Riopel’s ever-present smile remained, Vanuga wasn’t smiling.

It became a two-person race for the win by Aid Station 6. Vanuga reached the mark in 2:05:38. Riopel showed up exactly three minutes later, having sliced a full 40 seconds off Vanuga’s lead. But something that happens at every level of distance running, from elites to plodders, happened to Vanuga on the stretch along Cartledge Creek Road. He found a second win. By the time he turned right onto Holly Grove Church Road at Aid Station 7, Vanuga still led by nearly three minutes, but there was a different look in his eyes.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Ellerbe resident Sherri Caulder finishers her first Ellerbe Marathon and takes a moment to recover.

Stephanie Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Ellerbe resident Sherri Caulder finishers her first Ellerbe Marathon and takes a moment to recover.

He was no longer looking back for Riopel or other challengers. He was only interested in how far away the finish line was.

Riopel tackled the incline facing him on Holly Grove Church Road, then the larger hill after the left turn onto Grassy Island Road, as well as anyone. But Vanuga did, too, and maintained his lead through to the finish line.

Vanuga, with a Dubois, Wyo., address, stopped the clock in 3 hours, 26.2 seconds. Riopel, who won the 2014 Hinson Lake ultra and is set to compete for Team USA in Italy in April in Torino, Italy, was second in 3:03:11.9. Willimon moved up to finish third in 3:09:22.5 and Kistner held on to fourth place in 3:10:02.8.

Duke Smith, 39, of Rockingham, was the top county male finisher. Smith placed 15th overall in 4:14:25.4.

Notes from the road

Charles Bouchard, 54, of Hudson, placed seventh overall and won the men’s 50-59 age division but early on seemed to have much more in mind. However, the hills of Ellerbe quelled any dreams of a Top 5 finish Bouchard might have had.

“Those hills are crazy,” Bouchard said shortly after crossing the finish line. “I don’t like ’em.”

* * * 

Rockingham resident Duke Smith completed his first Ellerbe Marathon on Saturday — and by his on words, it’ll be his last.

Smith, 39, planned to take it easy and the mindset seems to have helped. After a sub-3:50 at Myrtle Beach last month, he cruised to a 4:14:25.4 finish on Saturday, good for 15th overall. He won’t, he said, look to improve on that finish next year.

“I’m retired from the Ellerbe Marathon,” he said.

* * * 

Eric Bean finished 28th on Saturday in 4:36:34.7. The 27-year-old Hamlet man trains a fair amount but, resting at the finish line in a light rain, he said the course sometimes got the better of him.

“I severely underestimated the difficulty of the course,” said Bean, minister of education and youth at First Baptist Church in Hamlet.

Bean, however, seemed to wear a smile the whole time and was actively supported along the way by his wife, Kirstin.

* * * 

Jose Santos was running to finish his 96th marathon — and he was willing to tell anyone who would listen.

The 59-year-old Mint Hill harrier proudly ran to a 33rd place finish on Saturday in 4:48:37.9.

Someone said something about age at the finish line. Santos would have none of that.

“I don’t feel old at all,” Santos said. “I’m gonna die when I’m 127 years old.”

* * * 

Todd Hoke, of Hendersonville, seemed to enjoy the course well enough. Well, sort of. He placed 37th in 4:55:25.4. The 45-year-old had a few things to get off his mind shortly after crossing the finish line and wanted to find race director Mark Long.

“Mr. Race Director,” Hoke said sternly, “I have some complaints to lodge.”

* * * 

Ellerbe resident Sherri Caulder, 53, was only a short bit off her goal of a sub-5-hour marathon. She finished in 5:08:28.4.

“So close,” she exclaimed, “but … I feel like a dead person.”

Caulder won the women’s 50-59 age division.

* * * 

Keegan the dog finished 26.2 miles on Saturday — and earned a medal just like everyone else. It was the only bandit officially recognized at the finish line.

Stephanie Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Keegan shows off the medal earned after finishing the 24th annual Ellerbe Marathon.

Stephanie Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Keegan shows off the medal earned after finishing the 24th annual Ellerbe Marathon.

Keegan, who also finished the Derby 50K in November, ran alongside Aaron Burlingame, who clocked a 4:38:29.4.

* * * 

Race director Mark Long, assistant by assistant director and aid station captain Jerry Lindstrand, expressed gratitude to each and every volunteer — scheduled and otherwise — to support the event today through sometimes pouring rain and, standing still, what could be considered cool weather.

In addition, a “hat tip” to the Richmond County sheriff’s deputies who worked to provide a safe environment for runners and motorists alike.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Rosemary Baxley is at ease as she takes water at Aid Station 1.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Rosemary Baxley is at ease as she takes water at Aid Station 1.

Stephanie Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Justine Seabolt, of Rockingham, is the epitome of happiness as she approaches the finish line.

Stephanie Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Justine Seabolt, of Rockingham, is the epitome of happiness as she approaches the finish line.

Filed in: Ellerbe/Norman, Featured News, Hamlet, Latest Headlines, Outdoors, Rockingham, Sports

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