Zablocki, Westover win VCMStefan Hard / Staff Photo
Eventual winner Chris Zablocki, wearing bib No. 2, leads a group of elite runners up Church Street during Sunday’s Vermont City Marathon in Burlington.
BURLINGTON — The closest race in years between two friendly rivals highlighted the men’s race, while Heidi Westover became the first six-time winner, claiming the women’s crown in a breeze during the 25th running of the Key Bank Vermont City Marathon Saturday.
More than 10,000 runners took to the streets of Vermont’s biggest city in cold and raw conditions, made downright winter-like by a stiff wind off Lake Champlain. At the start it was 43 degrees and raining steadily. Race aficionados speculated that the cool temperatures would lead to fast times and personal records but the only VCM record that fell was when Alicia Dana’s broke her own mark in the women’s wheelchair category.
Chris Zablocki of Essex, Conn., displayed a strong finishing kick as he blasted down the stretch after running the previous couple of miles neck-and-neck with last year’s winner, Matt Pelletier.
Zablocki, 24, busted loose to post a time of 2 hours, 18 minutes, 24 seconds. The time was a personal best for the pre-med student but well off the men’s record of 2:17:03, set by Michael Khobotov in 2001. Zablocki shook Pelletier on the bike path and ran hard to finish with a unique swimming motion 37 seconds ahead of Pelletier.
“It was a hard one,” said Zablocki, who had raced against Pelletier before but had never beaten him until this day. “I made sure that I pushed it as hard as I could so Matt wouldn’t catch me.”
What makes Zablocki’s win even more impressive was that he was coming off a victory in the Providence, R.I. marathon two weeks ago.
“I won that race but that was probably because Matt didn’t race,” he said with a wry smile.
Zablocki’s victory denied Pelletier his fifth VCM title. It also cost the Rhode Island native in another way. In 2012 when he won his fourth VCM, Pelletier used a portion of his winnings to buy an engagement ring. This year he had planned to use his winnings to finance his wedding.
“It was too hard to run in this,” said Pelletier, who describes himself as a warm-weather runner. “I believe that I was in 2:17 shape but the weather just took it out of me. It was too hard for me today. I’m not upset at Chris, he ran a good race. I’m not happy with myself.”
Meanwhile, Westover, 32, won her sixth VCM crown – that’s two wins better than any other runner in race history. Talk about domination, the teacher from North Walpole, N.H., has won six of the last eight VCM crowns, including three straight from 2009 to 2011. Westover set the women’s record of 2:35:02 in 2009. On Sunday she finished with a pack of men and posted a time of 2:42:00.
“I was going after my record,” said Westover, who was battling hamstring problems in April. “At (mile 13) I was only 12 seconds off my record time. But it got really cold for me. It was a tough day out there today.”
While Zablocki and Pelletier could push each other along by staying close and competitive, Westover had to do it alone. She was far in front of any other women runners and had to run against the clock while using herself as motivation.
“When I was trying for my record, which I was, I was running against the ‘Heidi’ who was in front of me,” she said. “Just try to keep it as positive as possible.”
One of the big positives was the performance of the Saxtons River runner Josh Ferenc, the first Vermont finisher who was fifth overall. Considering that Ferenc was recovering from a bout of bacterial meningitis this past winter, his time of 2:35:18 was pretty good for his first big run of the season.
“It really meant a lot to me,” said the 31-year-old science teacher at Bellows Falls Middle School. “I wanted to do it for myself, just to see if I could do it. It’s only in the last month that I’ve been able to run. I’m happy to just be able to run again.”
The performance of Dana was stunning as she finished 15 minutes before the next closest wheelchair racer. Her time of 1:39:53 shattered her own record of 2:00:19 set in 2011. She also battled the weather with her hands and fingers freezing up so that she found it difficult shifting gears. But as a member of the U.S. Paralympic Team, she said her training and the fact that she had a new hand-crank racing chair allowed her not merely to get through but to break a record.
“I’ve been training hard and I have good coaches,” said the 44-year-old Putney resident. “I knew this would be real challenging but this was a whole different level.”
Former University of Vermont women’s hockey player Abbey Kaknes was the first Vermont woman to cross the finish line at 2:55:02. Kaknes, a kindergarten teacher, was thrilled to claim the honor. She lives only a block away from the finish line at Waterfront Park and said she loved being able to walk to the race and to walk home.
“This race is special,” she said. “It is such a wonderful event. To see all those people out there in those conditions. I just love it and it means so much to me.”
Mary Lynn Currier had already more than made her mark here. She was the overall women’s winner in 1997 but the Connecticut native had also dominated the women’s masters field, winning her fifth title and her third-successive masters crown.
“This one meant a lot because I’m in my final year as a masters runner,” said Currier 49, who ran a 3:02:00. “I’m not real happy with my time but I’m happy with the win.”
Justin Renz of Milton, Mass., won the men’s masters crown in his first running of the VCM. The 41-year-old CFO of Zalicus, a biotech company in Boston, had been planning a run in Vermont and decided that the 25th anniversary was a good time to do so. Renz ran a time of 2:40:50.
“I was really doing well for 20 miles, thinking about a personal record,” he said. “It was lucky that the last four-and-a-half miles were downhill or I might not have made it.”
Despite the cold rain and gusting winds, the spectators still came out to root on the runners. Cowbells clanged all over the downtown area. Burlington Taiko Drummers at the base of the Battery Street hill braved the rain and kept a steady beat, even though their drums were sheathed in plastic. Despite the rain, zany costumes were still in vogue, with plenty of cow themes and wild socks and head wear. Wonder Woman and Superman were also on hand.
There was a tremendous police presence due to the tragic events at the Boston Marathon earlier this year. Police departments from all over Chittenden County, plus Vermont State Police and government agencies such as Department of Homeland Security, were on hand to support the local police and provide security for runners and fans alike. There were no incidents reported and the event ran smoothly.
“I just love Vermont,” Westover said. “There was so many people out there cheering, even in the rain. I thought it would be a quiet day because of the rain but it wasn’t – there was just as many people out there as there was the last time I was here. It was nice to hear everybody cheer. I really appreciate it; it really pushes you along.”
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