WRIGHT PATTERSON AFB — Connor Roche had been hearing about him for a couple of miles Saturday.
“When the race started, I was running up front with some of the half-marathoners and they were saying, ‘I don’t know if Jason knows you’re up here,’ ” said Roche, who was running his first Air Force Marathon.
He’s a West Point graduate and his Army duties now have him in an advanced scholarship program where he’s completing his masters at the University of Virginia. Eventually, he’ll teach English at West Point and until then he’s coaching at Waynesboro High and running races when he can.
A snafu in his racing schedule caused him to look for a last minute alternative and he signed up for the Air Force Marathon just last week.
He knew nothing of Jason Salyer, the local running standout from Tipp City who works as a civilian with the Department of Defense and won last year’s marathon, as well as the Flying Pig in Cincinnati and the Toledo Marathon this year. In February he’ll compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Orlando.
Salyer knew nothing of Roche either and was surprised to see him running up ahead – all alone in his orange shirt and orange shoes — once the half-marathoners had veered off their own path some 2 ½ miles into the race.
“When the split came, I saw him up there about 100 meters ahead of me,” Salyer said. “I was like, ‘Gosh, I got some work to do!’ I spent three miles trying to catch him and I finally got side by side with him at about mile 5.”
Roche looked over at Salyer, in his blue Dayton Track Team shirt, and said: “You must be Jason.”
It might not have been quite as dramatic as that fabled meeting between New York reporter Morton Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone, who’d been lost to the outside world after six years in Africa. In that 1869 encounter, Stanley, upon finding the Scottish explorer, is said to have exclaimed: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
But this meeting did make for some memorable back and forth maneuvering that has been rare for frontrunners here over the years.
“When Jason caught up, I told him I’d been kind of worried I was going to have to run this marathon by myself,” Roche grinned.
As it turned out, he wouldn’t be alone again until Mile 22 when Salyer, after nearly a dozen lead changes, finally was able to open a lead on him as they hit the hills and the overpass that make parts of the back end of the race so challenging.
Salyer had come into the race wanting to defend his title but admitted he hoped it would be more of a “cupcake” challenge. He said he had “trained through” this race — he ran 100 miles this past week — as he prepared for the Columbus Marathon next month.
But Roche forced him to plumb his depths and it made for something of a cat and mouse game for 17 miles.
“I made several moves, but he responded to every one of them,” Salyer said.
As this was going on — at least in the early stages of their jockeying — the two made small talk and learned a little about each other.
“You try to feel one another out,” Salyer said with a smile. “You want to know, ‘Is this guy a serious contender? Or is he just running really hard and is going to fade at any minute?’
“I try to assess how hard he’s breathing. And when he asks me a question, I try to act all composed and answer in a casual manner. I try to fake it like I’m not tired.
“But underneath we’re all runners and the running community is largely very supportive of each other and friendly. We both wanted to win today, but we were friendly rivals.”
Salyer finally pulled away and would go on to win in 2 hours and 26.48 minutes.
Roche finished second at 2:27.41.
Afterward the two sought each other out and talked. And, in private, each praised the other,
“I’ll definitely be following him from now on,” Roche said. “I hadn’t met him before, but when you have a great battle like that you want to follow them for the rest of their running career. This is a race I’ll remember.”
It was a memorable experience for a lot of Saturday’s winners:
- Katie Ruhlman, once a standout athlete at Cedarville University who now lives in Centerville and is a nurse practitioner – was the women’s winner some nine months after giving birth to her and husband Kevin’s son, Elijah.
She had been off running completely for four months and didn’t start doing any distance work until last month.
“This is a huge celebration today,” she said. “I just want women to know, you can do it. It does come back together for you. And when it does, it feels great.”
- The men’s half marathon champ, Jacob Pitman, just graduated from the Air Force Institute of Technology at WPAFB two days ago. Today, he heads to Columbus, Mississippi, to start pilot training,
“This was my last day in Dayton,” he said. “And it was a great day.”
- The women’s half marathon champ Christina Johnston – a former Wright State runner who now teaches biology at Fairmont High and has three children – won the event for her third time. She also won in 2010 and 2014..
- Darcy Whyte, who lives in Xenia and coaches the Centerville High girls cross country team, won the 10K women’s race. Saturday evening, she would coach her team in a meet at Troy.
- Dan Michalski – a product of Xenia High who is now in the Air Force’s elite athlete training program in Colorado Springs and readying for the Olympic Trials in the steeple chase – won the 5K race here Friday night and the 10K Saturday morning, before finishing 15th in the half marathon.
- Elizabeth Rodriguez won the women’s 5K.
- Dan Stietz and Steve Chapman tied for first in the men’s wheelchair hand crank division.
- Holly Koester won for the 22nd time at the marathon, taking the women’s wheelchair hand crank division.
- Corey Petersen won the women’ wheelchair push rim division.
- Josh Sommers won the men’s wheelchair division.