FAIRBANKS — More than 150 people crossed the finish line of the Santa Claus Half Marathon on Saturday morning.
It was beyond race director Ron Oliver’s expectations for the 24th edition of the 13.1-mile race that started and finished at the Chena Lakes Recreation Area in North Pole.
Japheth Ng’Ojoy, of Fort Wainwright, and Davya Flaharty, a former West Valley High School and University of Alaska Anchorage runner, won the respective overall and women’s titles in the event that had been canceled in early July because of a lack of race management.
Bobbi Jo Katchmar, the Usibelli Series liaison for Running Club North, had announced in a news release July 11 that the race would return next year. However, the 158 people who crossed the finish line Saturday didn’t have to wait for long.
On July 21, the Santa Claus Half Marathon was back on, and Ron Oliver, of Team RWB (Red, White and Blue), was announced as its race director. Team RWB is a service organization that connects military veterans to the community through social and physical activities.
The revival of the 24th edition of the half marathon was indicative of the support from the Fairbanks and North Pole communities.
“It’s just part of this community. Everyone steps up when something falls through,” Flaharty said not long after she crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 35 minutes and 14.4 seconds.
“So I’m really glad it was back on,” she continued. “A lot of people showed up, and that just shows this community deserves a ton of credit.”
Oliver said he would have been happy if 60 or 70 people showed up for the race “based on short notice and already being canceled.”
“It’s one of my favorite races and I’ve run it (two) times,” Oliver said. “It just seems to be a real popular race in the North Pole area, so everyone wanted to see it happen.”
Ng’Ojoy just decided Saturday morning to enter the half marathon. The 13.1-mile race for the first lieutenant at Fort Wainwright also was training for the Army Ten-Miler on Oct. 8 in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia.
The top three overall finishers in the Santa Claus Half Marathon — Ng’Ojoy in 1:17:54.0, Jason Coupe in 1:18:44.0 and Juan Bonnet in 1:26:42.1 — are members of the U.S. Army Alaska Team for the Ten-Miler.
“Having them has been great because they have been pulling me and calling me every morning,” Ng’Ojoy said.
“I promised them starting from this month of August that I’m going to pull and train with them,” he added. “There’s nothing better than training with teammates because if one person is down, the other one is pumped up. So you kind of pull each other.”
Ng’Ojoy benefitted from running the half marathon with Coupe and Bonnet because he pulled away from them about 3 miles into the course that also runs through a section of the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project.
The 29-year-old native of Kenya said he decided to do a “tempo or some type of training” in the race that was run amid sunny weather in the 70s.
“It was like, ‘Hey, let me just go and push the pace and see how my body reacts,’” Ng’Ojoy said.
“There was no plan at all as far as I would run a pace split, as far as mile marks and stuff like that,” he continued. “It was just like a long run and figure out where you get tired at.”
Coupe, who’s originally from Sacramento, California, said he and Bonnet ran at about a 5-minute, 55-second pace early in the race, while Ng’Ojoy was going at about 4:40.
“When we split half, he maybe got to about a 5:30 pace and we were only able to hold a 5:40, 5:50 pace,” the Army specialist said. “The gap opened up, and we tried to maintain the gap for the whole race.”
Coupe, however, was happy with his half-marathon debut.
“For me, this is great. This is the first half marathon I’ve ever ran,” Coupe said. “Running a time under an hour 20 was great.”
Logan O’Day placed fourth overall in 1:26:42.1 and Jose Martinez came in fifth in 1:27:27.6.
Flaharty had a 5-mile training run scheduled later Saturday after the half marathon. The Santa Claus race also helped her prepare for the 26.2-mile Equinox Marathon that takes place Sept. 16 and goes out and back from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Center to the top of Ester Dome.
“Equinox is a big race and I just try to do all of the races in the summer for my speed workouts,” she said. “It’s keeps the training fresh and exciting.”
The 32-year-old runner said she tried to start strong and maintain a steady pace in the Santa Claus Half Marathon.
“The miles on the flood (control project) were really slippery and gravelly,” she said.
“So that was a little hard and we had a little head wind on the dike,” Flaharty said. “So the last half was pretty brutal. So I kind of fell off my pace a little bit, but with the elements it was steady as it could be.”
Erika Burr, the women’s titlist in last year’s Santa Claus Half Marathon, was the women’s runner-up on Saturday in 1:36:41.3. Anna Merrill followed her in third place at 1:44:13.0; Dorli McWayne took fourth in 1:45:14.8; and Beth Zirbes was fifth in 1:45:53.7.