The coronavirus may have dented the 2020 running calendar, but on Sunday morning a crazy year was capped off by a record-shattering day in Hardeeville.
The sequel to the successful Lowcountry Elite Invitational 5K back in September, the Mortgage Network Half Marathon brought in elite runners from around the globe. In a stunning comeback, Ben Flanagan captured the men’s race, while Emily Kearney took home the women’s title in a dominant performance. Both winners got it done in style, setting South Carolina all-comers state records.
The event drew more than 35 runners from this year’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, along with several former NCAA and NAIA champions, Olympians, and top finishers in major running events across the country. Amazingly, both winners also made their half-marathon debuts.
Halfway through the men’s race, it looked like no one would be catching up to Athanas Kioka. The Kenyan and former Campbell University star emerged from a crowded pack early on at mile three and continued to extend his advantage throughout the first half of the race. Kioka’s lead swelled to more than 30 seconds, and any chance of a late rally seemed to be fading.
But a pair of runners lurking behind had other plans. In an incredible turn of events, Ben Flanagan and Matt McClintock found an extra gear on the back half of the race and caught the leader at the 10-mile mark. It looked like it could be a three-man battle going into the home stretch, but Flanagan kept the momentum rolling, breaking away from the rest as he coasted to the finish line for an improbable victory.
The Canadian and former NCAA 10K track champion at Michigan clocked in at 1:03:19, besting the South Carolina all-comers record by nearly two minutes. Purdue alum McClintock capped off a fantastic comeback effort with a second place finish at 1:03:38, and Kioka took third with a time of 1:03:47.
“It feels awesome,” Flanagan said. “Today, the goal was to just compete and see what the time ends up being, so it made for a great race out there. I had a blast and I’m really pleased with the effort. Kioka set such a hard early pace. With this being my debut I thought it was a little risky to go with him, so I settled back for a bit, and then Matt and I worked together. We were just chatting along the way and trying to pace ourselves and slowly chip at it, and carried that over into a nice last lap.”
In the women’s race, the twin duo of Kathryn and Erika Fluehr set the pace early on. But Kearney and Anna Shields provided a quick challenge to the sisters, and Kearney started to take control after mile four. The former 3K and 5K NAIA champion at Milligan (Tenn.) held off resistance from the field and cruised to a near 2-minute win with a time of 1:12:21, another new S.C. all-comers record. Colorado native Kathryn Fluehr finished strong in second place
at 1:14:16, and UNC Wilmington PhD candidate Peyton Thomas put together an impressive stretch run to place third, clocking in at 1:14:26. Of the 25 female finishers, an amazing 17 broke the 1:20 mark.
“It was enjoyable, the weather was pretty much ideal for running fast, it was nice to have the lead vehicle there the whole time, and the course was perfect,” said Kearney. “I was hoping to run about the time that I did, so that was fantastic.”
It wasn’t just the frontrunners who made headlines Sunday morning. Some of the Lowco’s own rewrote the state’s half-marathon record books, too.
Gavin Moore, 13, made news this past summer by winning the 50-mile Cremator Ultra, and he did it again Sunday when he bested the South Carolina record for his age group. The Beaufort High prodigy posted a blazing 1:21:21, beating the previous mark by over a second — and just two weeks after completing 76.2 miles to win the 12-hour Delirium Ultra in Beaufort.
It was also a memorable day for 62-year-old Jim Miller. The Bluffton resident clocked in with an astounding 1:20:52, breaking the 60-and-over state record with two seconds to spare. Greenville Elite runner Eduardo Garcia took down his own state resident record, finishing with a tremendous time of 1:04:32.
After weeks and months of preparation, the result couldn’t have been better for organizers Larry Kimball, David Crowell, Tim Waz, and Elle Ellender. With ideal, cool conditions free of rain, a group of first-class runners delivered an all-star performance.
It’s just the beginning, as Kimball and company are in talks to host the 2021 USATF Half-Marathon Championships, an opportunity of a lifetime to showcase a national event in our own backyard. With the hard work that Kimball and friends have poured in during a year unlike any other, they’ve certainly earned this chance.
“This is tremendously exciting,” said David Crowell. “Our original vision was to bring together elite runners for an invitational race. Elite runners rarely have events planned around them, and we pulled it off.”
Written by Wes Kerr
Wes Kerr is a graduate of Hilton Head Island High School and Davidson College. He has a passion for statistics and analytics.