A loud cheer erupted from the gathered runners when public-address announcer Rod McCrimmon counted down the start: “Three, two, one and they’re off.”
It was the pent-up joy after too long away. The Royal Victoria half-marathon and 8K Sunday were the first large-scale road races in more than 18 months on the Island.
“It was my first race in 20 months and it felt so good,” said women’s half-marathon champion Leanne Klassen of Calgary, after crossing in one hour, 17 minutes, 15 seconds.
“I’ve been training a lot by myself. This was very emotional. My family even came out to watch me.”
The men’s half-marathon champion was also from Calgary; Matthew Travaglini was across in 1:06:44.
The headwinds along Dallas Road on the stretch back to the finish line were too strong to challenge for the course records. Those are held by Natasha Wodak, a two-time Olympian at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, on the women’s side with a 1:11:45 clocking in 2018. The men’s half-marathon standard for Victoria was set by Jon Brown in 2002 when the marathoner, fourth place in both the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympics, ran 1:02:32.
The helpful tailwind on the way out turned into a menacing headwind on the way back.
“It was a beautiful course but challenging, especially with the headwind on the back stretch,” said Klassen, a former basketball player with SAIT, who didn’t take up running until 2016, after becoming a mother of two.
“But there were so many people along the course cheering you on and that really helped,” added the 34-year-old.
Maria Zambrano was second in the women’s half-marathon in 1:18:16 and Chloe Hegland third in 1:18:40.
The men’s champion, Travaglini, battled second-place Brendan Wong of Coquitlam (1:06:53) down the Belleville Street home stretch to the finish line. Logan Roots of Courtenay was third in 1:10:00.
“It was gorgeous along the ocean and through the neighbourhoods but there was a headwind in the later going,” said Travaglini, who ran in U Sports for the University of Windsor Lancers and University of Calgary Dinos.
“That was tough. It was a very hard course with so many hills. But Brendan [Wong] kept the pace honest for me.”
Scotland-native Sarah Inglis of Surrey, who runs for Great Britain, won the women’s 8K race in a course record 25:35 to breach her own former standard of 25:43 set in 2019. Mariah Kelly of Victoria was second in 27:06 and Rebecca Bassett of Coquitlam third in 27:30.
Reid Muller of Langley won the men’s 8K in 24:01 but was off Justin Kent’s record 23:14. Kevin Friesen of Nanaimo was second in 24:11 and Theo Hunt of Vancouver third in 24:22.
The pandemic-reduced field featured 2,715 people who signed up for the half-marathon and 1,704 for the 8K. The Royal Victoria Marathon, a qualifier for the Boston Marathon, was not conducted Sunday due to lingering effects of the pandemic. The total number of runners, walkers and rollers usually numbers about 9,000 in a normal year.
But all that really mattered was that there was finally mass racing again.
“The sun is shining and we didn’t run out of toilet paper in the Porta-Potties,” said race director and event manager Cathy Noel.
“It was a super positive vibe out there with no hiccups.”
Not that it was easy getting to that point in a pandemic.
“It was very much like an ever-changing puzzle to put this on,” said Noel.
Even if the pandemic abbreviated the event to the 4,419 runners who signed up, this year’s races came after a dark 2020 in which all road races were cancelled. So Sunday’s event stood as another milestone in the re-opening of sports.
A full event, including Royal Victoria Marathon, is planned for 2022. Noel said she is confident of a return to more normal times: “I’m not just hoping we are going to stage the full Royal Victoria Marathon next year, I know we will.”