ELLERBE — One glance at Kelly Bruno and a fellow runner might not think much of her — certainly not anything out of the ordinary.
Not many get a second chance for a better view.
Bruno, who has overcome a birth defect and the amputation of her right foot at the age of 6 months, made her debut at the 23rd annual Ellerbe Marathon a successful one Saturday en route to the women’s title in 3 hours, 43 minutes and 3 seconds.
Bruno said many competitors overlook her because she’s different — one foot in a running shoe, one blade. That usually changes once the race starts.
“I enjoy … surprising people,” Bruno said. “I kind of enjoy being underestimated.”
The 29-year-old Durham runner chased down Mary Edgmon, 29, of Raeford, over the final six miles to earn the win. The course used Saturday was introduced in 2013 and Bruno’s record-setting time took more than 21 minutes off last year’s winning time of 4:04:19. The win is Bruno’s first in her marathon career.
Bruno, an experienced triathlete, marathon and ultra runner who prefers trails over the 42.16 kilometers of paved country roads she mastered Saturday, said she was aiming for a Boston Marathon-qualifying time of 3:35.
“I think for the first half I had a really good split,” Bruno said while sitting in the shade of a tent near the finish line in the front yard of the Mount Pleasant Community Building. “Mile 15 broke me. The hills didn’t look that bad on the (online) profile.”
Race director Mark Long and others altered the course in 2013 when the Ellerbe Springs Inn, the race sponsor for which the was had originally been named, closed down. No longer needed to highlight the inn, Long and assistant race director Jerry Lindstrand made the course a single loop — which a final 10 miles featuring rolling hills most regional runners are unaccustomed to facing.
For more than half of the 26.2-mile footrace, Bruno remained a steady 90 seconds to two minutes behind Edgmon. Edgmon took second in 3:48:29. Edgmon said she felt great early on but hit the proverbial brick wall runners often talk about.
“I think maybe I ran the first half a little faster than I should have,” she said.
While the women’s title was Bruno’s first, Chuck Engle brought a little more experience in being first to the finish line. Engle, known as the Marathon Junkie in the international running community, finished his 296th marathon. Saturday’s race, during which he led from wire to wire, was his 171st victory.
“I gotta be honest, I feel like crap right now,” said the 43-year-old Arlington, Va., runner who recently relocated from Coos Bay, Ore.
Despite his marathon prowess, Engle on Saturday realized he was about to accomplish a first-time feat — running back-to-back marathons on consecutive weekends, or four 26.2-mile races in nine days. The Ellerbe Marathon, which he won in a course-record 2:53:35, was the third of four races.
Engle was third in 2010 on the former Ellerbe Springs Marathon course (2:55:40). He didn’t learn of the hills added on the new course until Friday night at registration.
“It’s tougher,” Engle said of the new course. “A lot of people said a sub-3:00 probably wouldn’t happen.”
In Engle’s case, what he didn’t know might have helped him.
“I think I went out a little too aggressive today,” he said.
If anyone else could measure Engle’s pace, it was Tomasz Kochanowicz. The 39-year-old defending champion from Fayetteville started out with Engle and after only a few hundred yards beyond the start line at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, the two had separated from the rest of the field.
By the sixth mile, Engle had pulled away slightly — a tenous 43-second, “I-can-still-see-you” lead ahead of Kochanowicz. Engle continued to push the pace and by Saron Church Road had a lead of two minutes and three second. At mile 16 by Parsons Cemetery, known as the highest point of elevation in Richmond County, the lead had grown by another 27 seconds.
All Engle had to do was hold on for the win. It was easier said than done.
“Every aid station volunteer told me how far I was behind Chuck,” said Kochanowicz.
Kochanowicz finished second in 2:57:16 while Chuck Schirmer, 53, of Southern Pines, placed third in 3:10:24. Lee Watson, 60, of Hamlet, was the top Richmond County finisher. Watson stopped the clock in 4:10:36.
Early on, Kochanowicz figured he still had a shot. Then came mile 15, and Kochanowicz maintained pace to take the lead “if anything happened to Chuck.”
It didn’t. Engle lengthened his lead to four minutes by the time he made the final turn onto Grassy Island Road from Holly Grove Church Road and cruised the final three miles to victory.