Under a gorgeous Hardeeville sky, the nation’s best distance runners delivered a dazzling show Sunday morning.
Thanks to the efforts of race director Larry Kimball and his terrific team of David Crowell, Tim Waz, Elle Ellender, and Jim Miller, the 2021 USATF National Championships were hosted Sunday at Sergeant Jasper Park as part of the Mortgage Network Road Races.
Keira D’Amato dominated the women’s race en route to a new championship record, and Conner Mantz rallied from behind to capture the men’s race in his professional debut.
“It was everything we could have asked for,” Kimball said. “Fast, quick times, it was just really incredible, and we’re super stoked about this.”
Heralded as the best American field since the 2020 United States Olympic Marathon Trials, the event drew 40 women and 49 men for a chance at a purse of $40,000 and a spot on the national team for the 2022 World Championships in China.
The men’s race was destined to be a thriller, and it certainly lived up to the hype. After an early logjam at the front of the pack, Mantz jumped out to a slim lead at the 10-kilometer mark before Tokyo 2020 Olympic mixed relay triathlon silver medalist Morgan Pearson pulled ahead with just over three miles to go. But Mantz found a second wind late in the race, charging past Pearson and a surging Sam Chelanga to the finish line for a four-second victory.
The 24-year-old BYU Cougar and two-time NCAA cross country national champion made his debut on the professional circuit, and he performed like a seasoned veteran on his way to the title and a berth in the World Championships next November, finishing in a remakarable 1:00:55.
“I just had to focus on what I was doing in the moment, and make sure Sam didn’t get too far ahead of me,” Mantz said. “Once I saw the finish, it ended up being a lot easier. It was really fun because there was so much talent here, and so going out and competing and having the talent to work together and run fast was just incredible. The half-marathon is where I started running, and now that I’m able to become a national champion at this distance, it means a lot to me personally.”
Mantz came into the race chasing Ryan Halls’ American record, and nearly bested the mark from 2007, finishing just over a minute short of the 59:43 standard. U.S. Army team member Chelanga placed second with a time of 1:00:59 to join Mantz in China, and Arizona native Nico Montanez took the bronze with a mark of 1:01:13.
After the first of three loops around Sergeant Jasper Park, the women’s trio of D’Amato, Allie Kieffer, and Natosha Rogers led a tight pack of runners jockeying for position. But it was D’Amato who took control in the middle lap, building a commanding 58-second lead after 15 kilometers. The 37-year-old stayed steady into the home stretch and cruised across the line to claim the national title and a coveted spot on the World Championship team.
“I’m pumped,” D’Amato said. “I went out on that first loop and just tried to lock in on a nice, comfortably hard pace, and tried to get a little faster every lap. I felt like effort-wise, I was able to hang in there and find a pretty good pace. I’m just overwhelmed with excitement that I’m winning a national title, and I feel a lot of pride to get a trip to compete in the world championships.”
A graduate of American University, D’Amato followed up her stellar fourth-place finish in October’s Chicago Marathon with a victory in Hardeeville and a championship-record time of 1:07:55, crushing Shalane Flanagan’s mark of 1:09:41 set in 2010. Former winner Rogers notched the second World Championship spot with a mark of 1:09:36, and Minnesota Distance Elite member Dakotah Lindwurm was right behind in third place at 1:09.40.
It was a memorable day for several national stars, but the Lowco’s own teenage sensation also found himself in the spotlight. Beaufort High eighth-grader Gavin Moore impressed on the country’s biggest stage, running a sensational 1:17:48 in the men’s sub-elite race. With a large cheering section including teammates Nash Mills and Charlie Bennett, the SCHSL 4A top-20 finisher continued to show his prowess against strong competition, placing ninth alongside 18 top adult runners and improving his time by nearly four minutes from last year’s race.
“He’s just a real up-and-comer, and hopefully he can stay with it,” Kimball said. “As an eighth-grader fishing in the top 20 in cross country against high school competition, he’s going to be a real champion down the road.”
Omer Abdulrahman (1:08.44) took the men’s sub-elite crown, while Kaitlyn Peale (1:17.07) won the women’s division. Bluffton’s Seth Tucker (1:12:33) placed fifth in the men’s sub-elite race.
The morning kicked off with an open 5K race. Nhan Nguyen (18:32) took the men’s competition, and Steffi Martin (22:36) captured the women’s title.
The event was a longtime vision for Kimball, and Sunday’s races were a culmination of his team’s hard work throughout the past year. After hosting the Lowcountry Elite Invitational 5K in September and the Mortgage Network Half Marathon three months later, Kimball set his sights on a national championship bid and pulled it off flawlessly. The conditions couldn’t have been better, and a group of determined runners seized the moment to give Lowco fans a morning to remember.
“I’m a running junkie, and for everyone to come here and be part of this in our backyard was just phenomenal,” Kimball said. “There’s just a lot of people to thank, we had a ton of volunteers along with David, Tim, Elle, and Jim. I just love that we can bring this type of talent to the Lowcountry.”
By Wes Kerr
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