By JOHN DEGROOTE
The UCC Coffee Kunitake Farms Kona Marathon celebrated its 20th anniversary the right way — with a local competitor taking home the crown as marathon champion.
Konawaena High School graduate and Big Island resident Allen Wagner captured the Kona Marathon on Sunday with a time of 2 hours, 33 minutes, 37 seconds.
“I’m proud to represent the place I grew up,” Wagner said. “I was telling some friends yesterday that it doesn’t matter what happens or who shows up, I have to win because I have to represent everyone who is from Kona. I wanted to show that we have great athletes here.”
Wagner joins an exclusive club of men who can say they have been crowned champion of the Kona Marathon. Since the race started 20 years ago there have been only seven other men’s champions.
Only two of those top finishers have Hawaii connections — 1994 champion Karl Honma from Waimea and 1996 champion Chris Crawford from Kailua, Oahu.
Wagner has run marathons all over the country, but competing in Kona was a different kind of experience for him.
“I was pretty emotional entering the race because I grew up here,” Wagner said. “I felt elated to even be in the race. I knew Alii Drive real well from when I would run as a kid.”
Wagner moved away from the island after graduating high school to attend Dana (Neb.) College, a school that is now defunct. There he was a three-time NAIA All-American.
Wagner returned just over a year ago to the place he grew up.
“We love our Big Island aloha spirit,” assistant race director David Ranck said. “We are glad to see someone from Kona represented in the marathon and couldn’t have asked for a better 20th anniversary.”
This was the first time Wagner has run in the Kona Marathon.
Russia native and former Hawaii Pacific University athlete Polina Babkina won the women’s marathon with a time of 2:51:53. She was the third overall finisher.
Neither the men’s or women’s champion returned this year.
Former champion Justin Gillette had won the last five Kona Marathons but did not participate this year due to the birth of his daughter.
It was no cakewalk to the finish line for Wagner — second-place men’s finisher John Ricardi made sure of that.
“We were close for 16 or 17 miles during the race,” Wagner said. “I was nervous for a while because I could tell he was getting closer to me after I had pulled out front at the start. As a track guy he has tremendous speed. It was when we started going downhill later in the race that I was able to gain some distance on him.”
Ricardi finished with a time of 2:42:39.
The Kona Marathon also hosted half-marathon, 10K and 5K races Sunday.
Chris Gregory won the half-marathon with a time of 1:20:15, Alexander Balla won the 10K race in a time of 37:41, and Robert Desisto Jr. took home the crown in the 5K with a time of 17:43.
Twenty years is a tremendous accomplishment but Ranck and his Kona Marathon crew are already preparing for next year.
“It’s a relief when everything is done, but we are always ready to go for the next one,” Ranck said. “It’s an exciting time and a great event. We now have a whole year before we have it again. I can’t wait till next year.”