Pa. resident Santucci's 1st marathon victory 'a good place to start'
Clara Santucci was the first American woman to cross the finish line at the Chicago Marathon last fall, but never had she been the first woman to cross a marathon finish line, period.
That changed Sunday.
Santucci broke away from her closest competitors with about six miles left in the Pittsburgh Marathon.
While she still felt good — and they seemed to be struggling — Santucci knew she had to finish strong.
The Dilliner, Greene County, resident earned her first marathon win, finishing in 2 hours, 32 minutes, 25 seconds, more than two minutes faster than second-place Yeshimebet Bifa of Ethiopia.
She joined men's champion Gebo Burka of Ethiopia, who won in his first time racing in Pittsburgh in 2:16:30.
“I just wanted to know what winning felt like,” said Santucci, who draped an American flag over her shoulders after crossing the finish line. “I think, sometimes, you have to practice that, and this is a good place to start.
“My parents are here, my friends are here and a lot of my friends and people I work with. I'm up here all the time going to Pirates games, and it's a lot of fun to win something so close to home.”
Dilliner is about 70 miles south of downtown near the West Virginia border, so Santucci's trips to Pittsburgh to watch baseball over the last month doubled as chances to scout the course. It's strategic, she said, and it helps to know about the hills and how to approach them.
“I kind of knew what was coming,” she said. “Just knowing where the tough parts were and having that mental picture of where I'd have to push and where I could relax and get my energy levels back really helped.”
In the men's race, Burka was alone from the time the full and half-marathon courses split in the South Side with the light rain subsiding but temperatures remaining cool.
He reached the midpoint of the 26.2-mile race in 1:05:37. Burka, 26, who won the L.A. Marathon in 2:10:37 on March 9, said he was trying for the Pittsburgh course record of 2:10:24 before he started having stomach and muscle cramps.
“I tried,” Burka said. “It became a little difficult.”
Burka's pace started to slow around Mile 19, and shortly after, he began checking over his shoulder to see who was chasing.
Fidele Jefferson, who was born in Burundi but is a U.S. citizen, was alone in second place.
“I'm pretty good running up hills, but the downhills kill my quads,” Jefferson said. “We went so fast for the half, which was uphill, then comes downhill and I'm like, ‘Oh, man.' (Burka) was on a pace to halfway and I kind of followed him, but he was way ahead.”
Jefferson was second overall and the first American for the men at 2:17:37, enough to earn him a “B” qualifying standard for the U.S. Olympic Trials but still shy of his goal of a sub-2:15 “A” standard.
Two-time defending champion James Kirwa dropped out of the race after the 10K mark because of his muscles locking up.
The men's and women's winners got $8,000 each, but Santucci scored the biggest payday. The 27-year-old former West Virginia runner earned $8,000 for being first overall, $4,500 as the first American, $1,500 for earning an Olympic Trials “A” qualifying time and $1,000 for being the top Pennsylvanian.
This is the first year the marathon has offered additional prize money to U.S. runners as part of its American development program.
Santucci also was the first American woman to win the Pittsburgh Marathon since Kristen Price in 2009, the first year the marathon returned after a five-year absence.
“I really want to be a part of this in the future, even if it's coming back to be part of the community support or run the half-marathon or something like that,” she said. “Or maybe the marathon again. It's been a really great experience.”