Runners on the storm

Leading a running clinic Thursday night at the South Whidbey High School track, Matt Simms and Curt Gordon -- two island runners who made a big impression on an international field at the Las Vegas Marathon Sunday -- take it easy for a change. - Matt Johnson
Leading a running clinic Thursday night at the South Whidbey High School track, Matt Simms and Curt Gordon -- two island runners who made a big impression on an international field at the Las Vegas Marathon Sunday -- take it easy for a change.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Every time Matt Simms and Curt Gordon run a marathon, they try to tell anybody who asks about their latest races that they just had "OK" runs.

During the past four months, Simms and Gordon, who train together on South Whidbey, have added to their cult of modesty. So when they and a third training partner, Charley LeWarne of Clinton, got back from Sunday's Las Vegas Marathon this week, it was no surprise that he, too, downplayed the finish times and places.

The only problem was that they were trying to do the impossible.

In one of the most difficult runnings of the 26.2-mile desert race in its 37-year history, the three guys from Whidbey Island were the best of the Northwest. After finding each other in a blinding sand and wind storm late in the race, LeWarne and Simms outran more than 2,500 other marathoners to take ninth and tenth place in the event.

Gordon, racing for the first time since finishing Ironman Hawaii in October, was 32nd overall and first in the 45-and-over men's division.

Going in, said LeWarne, they were just three no-name runners from a place no on had heard of.

"We were just a couple guys from an island in Washington somewhere," he said.

It was an underestimation few elite runners in future marathons will make around these guys again.

Billed as one of the fastest marathons in the United States, the Las Vegas Marathon is run on a course that, on the whole, loses elevation from start to finish. LeWarne, Simms and Gordon were there to set personal record times for themselves: Going for top placings was not on their minds.

It should have been. Simms placed seventh in the Seattle Marathon in 2001 and all three men run at similar paces while training.

And when a 30 mph wind kicked up on the desert highway that is the race course, these three island guys were ready for the pain.

"It felt like running hill repeats the whole way," Gordon said. "It was like an adventure race."

For LeWarne and Simms, it seemed worse. Running without eye protection, they found themselves closing their eyes as much as they could once turning into the wind at 9.5 miles into the race. One of the few things they did see through the dirty wind was another runner tumbling to the ground after being hit by a big piece of wind-blown paper.

In a larger group of runners at the time, the rest of the race wasn't looking so good. All three island runners raced for survival, joining packs of runners to draft off one another and hide from the wind as much as possible.

"It was a war of attrition at that point," Simms said.

Though 20-some places and 10 minutes ahead of Gordon, LeWarne and Simms knew they were way off the pace they'd wanted to set coming into the race. So both were shocked to find out with four miles to go they were in ninth and 10th place.

"We had absolutely no idea," Simms said.

After pushing each other through slumps over the past 22 miles, it was Simms' turn to pull the pair to the finish line. With the wind finally at his back after turning for the final stretch, Simms, the younger of the two at 34, set the pace for the last miles.

At the line, the the two crossed at exactly the same moment, clocking times of 2 hours, 49 minutes and 56 seconds. Race judges gave the higher placing to LeWarne, who turned 37 the day before. It was a fitting gift for turning a year older.

Gordon, who at 46 is the senior athlete of the trio, was not far behind. Hoping to break the three-hour barrier going into the race, he just missed it at 3:01.23.

It was a slow race for everyone. Though the course record is 2 hours, 12 minutes and last year's winner clocked a 2:18 this year, race winner David Bronfenbrenner of Pennsylvania could do no better than 2:33. In all, 2,535 people finished the race.

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