SEA ISLE CITY — A.J. Kelly was more concerned with beating the clock than the competition during the 15th Ocean Drive Marathon today.
The 31-year-old Altoona, Pa., resident wound up with a record time and a victory.
Kelly covered the 26.2 miles from Cape May to Sea Isle City in 2 hours, 36 minutes, 9 seconds. That broke the event record of 2:39:08 set by Nick DeSantis, from the Blackwood section of Gloucester Township, in 2009.
“I definitely wanted to get the course record,” said Kelly, who is a shoe salesman and makes orthotics. “I knew I had a chance as long as I could stay focused and maintain my pace, and I was able to do that. I usually hit the wall around 21 miles or so, but I felt really good today.”
Kelly ran track for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania — one of his half-dozen tattoos was an IUP emblem shaped like a runner — and competed in his 13th marathon. Today’s race was his first time in the Ocean Drive event.
Conversely, women’s champion Lauren Sanders, a 26-year-old copywriter from Wyomissing, Pa., made her third appearance. She finished in a personal-best 3:10:54 and may have had a shot at threatening the ODM women’s mark of 3:00:29 run by Jacquie Merritt in the first race in 1999 if not for a few pit stops.
“Thank goodness there was some construction going on because I think I visited four of their ‘Port-O-Potties,’ ” Sanders said with a laugh. “Let’s just say I had to sit down a few times during the race.”
Approximately 650 runners from 39 states and Canada and South Africa stepped to the starting line in front of Congress Hall in Cape May. Attendance for the OMD was down for the first time this year, a decline that race director Edward DiPalma attributed to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Weather conditions were favorable for distance runners with partly cloudy skies, temperatures that hovered in the high 30s to low 40s and winds that didn’t appear to be nearly as brutal as in past years.
Kelly dressed as if he was going to do some sunbathing afterward. He ran in a pair of black shorts and a gold-and-black tank top. His only concessions to the cold were a ski cap and gloves.
Sanders also drew some attention for her attire, which included a pink wool hat with ear flaps shaped like a bunny rabbit.
“I bought it for a marathon last November and was planning on throwing it away after that race,” Sanders said. “But everybody loved it, so I decided to keep it. I got a lot of attention today because of it. I made a lot of friends on the course.
“I’ve run eight marathons and this one is my favorite. My family has been coming to Stone Harbor since before I was born. It’s my favorite place in the whole world.”
Kelly didn’t have much company. He jumped to the front of the pack less than a mile into the race and stayed there. He ran for a while with eventual 10-mile race winner Brian Waters, who won the 2012 marathon, and received some advice about how to handle the five bridges on the course. But once Waters crossed his finish line, Kelly was alone.
He spent the final 16.2 miles staring at the back of the white pace truck, which inadvertently wound up providing his only adversity. There was a two-block stretch on Dune Drive in Avalon that was undergoing construction, forcing the runners to navigate through uneven patches of dirt that was littered with stones before returning to pavement.
“I got a little dirty because of the lead car kicking up dust in front of me,” Kelly said. “But other than that, I really enjoyed the course. I used to vacation in Wildwood when I was a kid and I brought my wife (Erica) and kids (son Graham and daughter Ellen) with me this weekend. This area has always been special to me.”
Kelly wound up dusting the field.
Runner-up Graham Merrifield, a 50-year-old native of London who lives in Titusville, Mercer County, finished nearly 12 minutes behind Kelly in 2:47:45.
“I took a wrong turn at mile 25 and that probably added four minutes to my time,” said Merrifield, who ran his 25th marathon. “But I was hoping to break 2:50, so I’m satisfied. I’ve run in all the big marathons like Boston, New York, San Francisco and London, so it was nice to do a smaller one. I’m celebrating my 50th birthday by running a 50-mile race in May, so I was using this as a training run.”
Sanders also enjoyed a comfortable margin of victory in the women’s division.
Lydia Imperiale, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother of two from Glenside, Pa., took second place in 3:17:24.
“This is my 23rd marathon, but I haven’t run one in a while,” Imperiale said. “I just had a baby 10 months ago, so this was my comeback race.”
Note: Complete results of the marathon, 10-miler and five-kilometer races were not available.
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