Midtown Raleigh News

Deaths cloud a festive, if hilly, Rock ’n’ Roll marathon

Runners head down Salisbury Street during the Raleigh Rock 'n' Roll Marathon & Half Marathon Sunday April 13, 2014.
Runners head down Salisbury Street during the Raleigh Rock 'n' Roll Marathon & Half Marathon Sunday April 13, 2014. tlong@newsobserver.com

The deaths of two runners who had just completed a 13.1-mile run injected a tragic note into an otherwise festive Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Sunday.

The runners, whose names have not been released, collapsed near the finish line and died despite quick attention from the event’s medical teams.

Up to that point, all had gone well for the Rock ’n’ Roll series’ first time in Raleigh. A throng of 12,500 runners from 49 states turned out for the 26.2-mile marathon and 13.1-mile half marathon through central and western Raleigh.

For some runners, finishing the course was an affirmation. In her first marathon after a three-year layoff, Heidi Bretscher of Durham was the first woman and third overall finisher with a time of 2:49:46.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I’d run that fast,” she said.

Bretscher said she had run five marathons before but had to stop after a series of injuries – including being hit by a car while bicycling.

“I honestly thought I was broken for life,” she said, “and I’m real excited not to be.”

Paul Himberger of Durham was the first to finish the full marathon, with a time of 2:38:57. Tibor Vegh of Raleigh won the men’s half-marathon in 1:09:32, and Michelle Renee Langan of Cary was first in the women’s race in 1:19:56. (For more results, see bit.ly/1sXE4E4)

The course was designed to be a “postcard run route” that showcased Raleigh’s natural beauty and landmarks, said Scott Dupree, director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. Both races passed Chavis Park, Oakwood Cemetery, Cameron Village, the N.C. State Bell Tower and Pullen Park; the full marathon extended west past Schenck Forest and the State Fairgrounds.

As expected, the race snarled traffic. Capital Boulevard from downtown was backed up as far south as Wade Avenue by 6 a.m. as cars moved at a snail’s pace. Drivers negotiated detours around blocked-off thoroughfares between Capitol Square and the Convention Center.

The original course was re-routed after some churches complained about conflicts with worshippers coming for services on Palm Sunday, one of the most sacred days of the Christian calendar. At least one, West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, changed one service time from morning to late afternoon, and others suggested alternate routes to church on their websites.

“I don’t think there are any provisions (for congestion) we can make,” said Nancy Moore, a member of Edenton Street Methodist Church. Speaking before the race, she said she and her husband planned a route in advance to get downtown from their home near Fuquay-Varina.

“I’m sure we will have problems,” she said.

Some churches had traffic lanes into their parking lots marked off with traffic cones well before race time, but on most streets north of the Capitol traffic flow appeared near normal as church bells were ringing for 11 a.m. services.

By then, runners had been finishing for hours. Starting began at 7 a.m., with runners grouped into 24 groups called “corrals,” according to how long runners thought it would take them to finish. Corral starts were staggered to avoid congesting the course, and it took about 40 minutes when the last corral crossed the start line and began running down Salisbury Street.

A crowd at least as large as the group on the race course turned out to cheer the runners, some calling out names and others waving signs with messages such as “Run like you stole something” and “Didn’t your mother tell you about fast women?”

Marcia Brecht of New Bern said she made “a special trip to watch” her daughter, Cindy Wolfe of Raleigh, run her first half-marathon. She was running as a memorial to her father, Brecht said, who died on the same date three years ago.

“This is kind of special,” Brecht said.

The races were family occasions for some other runners as well. Having finished his half-marathon, Nick Trueman of Holly Springs stood at the finish line looking up the course for his “whole crew:” wife, sister, two sisters-in-law, a cousin from Miami and another cousin from St. Louis.

The course “was tough,” he said: hilly, but not too steep, and the bands playing along the way were “great support.”

Many among the crowds that lined the race were unaware of the deaths of the two men who collapsed near the finish line. People on social media sent news of the deaths and condolences to the as-yet-unidentified survivors.

Music combined with running is the signature of Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, an annual series of races in North America and Europe. Twenty-nine groups were stationed along the course, playing rock, country, folk, blues and other lively sounds to entertain the crowds of runners and those along the race route.

“The Raleigh race support was awesome,” said Nikkis Spicer from Fayetteville, who ran the full 26.2 miles. “There were people everywhere, so you stayed motivated.”

A member of a running group called “Women Run the World,” Spicer said she found the course hilly.

“Hill after hill after hill. Too hilly, you had no time to recover,” she said.

“Who knew Raleigh had so many hills?” said Arthur Potter from Knightdale. He ran the half-marathon; his wife, Michele, ran the full one, but said she might settle for the shorter version next year.

The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon will be back next spring and the next, and maybe more. Dupree, with the Sports Alliance, said the event has a three-year contract with the series, with an option for two more “after we see how it goes.” Signups are already open for next year.

For the occasion, the Sir Walter Raleigh statue at the Convention Center was holding an electric guitar, and runners who finished were climbing its pedestal to have their pictures made.

“It’s a great event,” said Rob Kissell, who had just stepped down after a half-marathon. “I loved seeing Raleigh come alive with this events. I’ve seen other places but Raleigh really stepped it up to make it energy-filled and fun.”

Kissell, who lives in Raleigh, had his own cheering section along: sons Justin, 16, and Andrew, 12, who rode bicycles along the course with Kissell’s girlfriend, Laura Langham.

“It was great fun for the family to be riding through the streets downtown,” Langham said. “We didn’t know how it would go, and it was a blast.”

The Raleigh-based V Foundation was one of the charities benefiting from the race, and runners in green Team V shirts were prominent in the crowd, along with shirts in a variety of colors promoting one or another cause.

Stephanie Hughes of Raleigh wore an orange jersey for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 13, she said, and she had written names of friends with the condition around the bottom of her shirt.

The Crohn’s foundation was not one of Sunday’s beneficiaries, but Hughes said she wore the jersey, from a previous race, “to support that again.” She had run in Rock ’n’ Roll Marathons elsewhere, she said; this time, her husband, Jarrod, had run his first half-marathon along with her.

“I won,” she said.