More than 950 runners braved near-freezing temperatures to compete in the inaugural Soldier Half and Full Marathon during Veterans Day weekend.
Wearing shorts, T-shirts and, in some cases, no shirts at all, hundreds of runners took off from the National Infantry Museum at 7 a.m. Saturday to run 13.1-mile or 26.2-mile routes in 40-degree weather through Fort Benning, uptown Columbus and Phenix City before returning to the finish line at the museum, where, by mid-morning, the weather had warmed to 70 degrees.
While a majority of participants came from Georgia, Alabama and Florida, it was a Brazilian marine corps athlete seeking an Olympic berth who took top honors. Alex Barbosa, 32, of Sao Goncalo, Brazil, finished first overall in the marathon with a chip time of 2 hours, 35 minutes, 54.17 seconds, setting a 5:57-minute mile pace. Trailing by less than 30 seconds was Roger Hagues, 26, of Columbus, with a 5:58-minute mile pace. Joshua Horsager, 32, of Columbus, rounded out the top three with a time of 2:54:43.93.
Barbosa said he hopes to run the marathon in the 2016 Olympic Games, which will be hosted in Rio de Janeiro, near his hometown. Reigning Olympic men’s marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru, 23, set the Olympic race record in the 2008 Beijing summer games with a time of 2:06:32.
For the women in Saturday’s race, Christine Ngai, 29, of Darien, Ill., won in 3:24:09.36, more than two minutes faster than runner-up Melody Miles, 24, of Marysville, Wash.
Melissa Casey, 22, of Athens, Ga., finished third at 3:30:18.54, setting an 8:03-minute mile pace.
In the relay marathon division, a team from the Sledgehammer Brigade raced to victory with a time of 2:57:11. The team, from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, was made up of Joshua McCarver, Edward Guelfi, Robert Huefner, Jared Wigton and Elijah Phillips.
Guelfi was able to power through the final 5.7-mile leg and was joined by his teammates for the final tenth of a mile run down Heritage Walk to the finish line with the unit guidon in hand.
“The toughest part of the course was probably the first part on Fort Benning — it was early and cold,” said Huefner, who said Phillips ran the first leg.
The team received the Sledgehammer trophy and was congratulated by 3rd HBCT commander, Col. Peter Jones, at the finish line.
But for most of the runners, it wasn’t the time at the finish line that mattered, but making it all.
“If I finish and don’t finish last, then that’s my personal best,” said half-marathon runner David Nance, who stopped at several points along the way to knock out push-ups whenever he saw a drill sergeant.
Christi Reaves and Shannon Hinds crossed the finish line together and said they signed up because the run is for a good cause. The two teamed up to motivate each other throughout the half-marathon and finished in 2:01:30.
Cecil Cheves, race coordinator and member of the Columbus Roadrunners, said the event was a huge success. Proceeds from the run benefit the National Infantry Museum, House of Heroes and West Georgia Honor Flight.
Cheves, who originally anticipated 300 to 400 runners would sign up, said he credits the large runner turnout to the idea that people want to “celebrate the Soldier.”
“When you think of a Soldier, you think of training, discipline, determination, perseverance — all the qualities that go into endurance training. It’s a natural fit,” he said. “We hope this will be a wonderful event for years to come.”
The race was 11 months in the making. Cheves and fellow local runners Reggie Luther and John Teeples discussed bringing a community marathon to Columbus last Christmas.
House of Heroes executive director Susan Gerkin pointed the group in the direction of Fort Benning’s garrison commander, Col. Thomas Macdonald, who pitched the idea to the Fort Benning command group, Cheves said. Retired Col. Greg Camp and Mike Stephens came on board and formed the five-member race committee that, together with the support of Fort Benning, was able to begin planning the marathon.
The course is flat and fast, with one moderate and four minor inclines and is USA Track & Field, certified and sanctioned.