There is nothing better than the real thing.
Yes, the Duke City Marathon did hold a virtual event a year ago, but organizers, participants and longtime volunteers clearly preferred an in-person event that kicked off Sunday morning at Civic Center Plaza.
Judging by the nearly indiscernible difference in entries, volunteers and fans from previous races, one might forget the world is still in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
Carlos Navarro, an El Paso resident who has volunteered every year since the race’s inception, reunited with many acquaintances he hasn’t seen in two years.
“It’s almost like a family,” said Navarro, who volunteers as the finish line and start line coordinator. “You see the same people over and over again … for two years, we didn’t see them.”
Again, seven races were held beginning with the featured marathon at 7 a.m., and each subsequent race started in 15-minute increments after the marathon.
Paul LeFrancois, a 31-year-old from Santa Fe, claimed the men’s marathon in his first Duke City entry in five years, clocking 2 hours, 42 minutes, and 47 seconds.
Meanwhile, first-time Duke City competitor Erin Wagner of Albuquerque won the women’s marathon in 3 hours, 2 minutes, and 34 seconds. Wagner’s finish was ninth overall among all marathon entries.
“I was training to run a sub-3 (hours),” said Wagner, who recently moved to Albuquerque from Chicago. “I had a little injury that prevented me from doing some long runs and longer-tempo runs. I really just wanted to get a Boston (Marathon) qualifier, and see how close to three hours I could get.”
Wagner said early-morning conditions in which temperatures were hovering in the high 30s felt almost like home.
And it’s that home-like feel that brings people back each year — participants, volunteers, and fans — said Duke City Marathon board member Burt Trembly.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect because COVID is not gone,” Trembly said.
That said, Trembly knew if the race was held, the long-standing loyalty of the racing community would ensure success.
“We really didn’t know for sure (that the race would be held) until the last couple months,” Trembly said. “But the city of Albuquerque worked with us to make sure this was put on in-person and correctly, and I’ll tell you what, it’s been better than expected.”
What was perhaps better than expected was LeFrancois’ tremendous performance in his first marathon in two years.
LeFrancois ran for NCAA Division III Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and has continued that competitive urge in adulthood.
Five years ago, his Duke City Marathon time was just over 2 hours, 54 minutes. On Sunday morning, he shook his only earlier competitor near the halfway point of the race, and cruised home nearly 12 minutes faster than his 2016 time.
“Five years of running in between (the last Duke City race), it was a big jump,” LeFrancois said.
His last marathon was in Phoenix in 2019, but the year off from racing gave him additional time to assess his running goals, get back to basics, while also renewing that urge to compete.
“It was great to be able to compete again,” LeFrancois said. “The way this course works, you get to the halfway point, you turn around, and you start seeing the other people running. Everyone was just giving positive words and thumbs up. I missed that, but I also missed the encouragement and positivity.”
Previous years saw Duke City Marathon entries in the 4,000 range. Trembly said entry numbers will not finalize for another two weeks, but he expects those numbers to compare favorably to the pre-pandemic totals.
“We’ve been trying really hard for the last year and a half to put on a safe, but fun race for everyone,” Trembly said. “To be back like this and almost normal — with so many people having a good time — it feels really good.”
Results are available online at www.dukecitymarathon.com.