Santa Rosa Marathon women’s winner was 2nd for hours Sunday before she was 1st

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Questions remained Monday over how a woman who said she ran only a portion of Sunday’s Santa Rosa Marathon was initially declared the winner, the second time in three years that race irregularities have led to the disqualification of apparent winners in the marquee event.

For several hours Sunday, results on the race’s website listed Wendy Jennings, 49, of Huntington Beach, as the women’s marathon winner. The website showed she had clocked a 2:41:23 finishing time for the 26.2-mile course, a result that would have qualified her for the prestigious Boston Marathon and Olympic trials.

But Caroline Boller, 40, who recently moved to Solvang from Temecula, was later declared the women’s winner after officials discovered Jennings hadn’t checked in at any of the three mid-race time stations, according to the race website.

The mishap marked another high-profile glitch for the Santa Rosa Marathon, now in its seventh year and recognized as one of the top 25 races nationwide that offer runners the chance to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

In 2013, race officials disqualified the first three male runners to cross the finish line after learning they followed the wrong path for a portion of the race, allowing them to overtake another runner who ran the correct course.

Organizers said at the time that the runners erred, but also agreed to review the course layout and consider improving signs and staffing to prevent such mistakes in the future.

Race director Orhan Sarabi, a Santa Rosa resident, and three others listed on the race website as part of the marathon’s management team have not responded to dozens of phone calls, emails, texts and social media requests for comment over two days.

Jennings disputed her disqualification, saying in a phone interview Monday that she decided mid-race to run the half-marathon course because her knee was injured.

She said she stopped at about the 6-mile mark and received first aid, but then continued another few miles before deciding to run the half-marathon instead of the full 26.2 miles.

The two longer races — there was also a 5-kilometer event Sunday — had different starting times and slightly different beginning routes, but followed mostly the same course over the first 8 miles and finished at the same spot near Julliard Park.

Jennings was announced as the first female finisher of the marathon upon her arrival at the finish line, and one race official said she confirmed twice immediately afterward that she had run the full race.

In a post-race interview with a reporter, Jennings also did not correct the inaccuracy when asked multiple times about her “win.”

Jennings said Monday she told the race officials and a Press Democrat reporter she had only run the half-marathon.

“I made a choice in the middle of the race,” she said. “I went to the course director and said could you please make sure they know I’m running the half?”

Boller and other lead female runners, meanwhile, said they were immediately doubtful of Jennings placing in the top spot.

Boller, a sponsored ultra-runner for Nike, said her husband alerted her that Jennings was listed as the winner after she’d finished. But Boller said she and another female runner, Devin Yanko, 33, of San Anselmo, along with a third woman from Colorado, had led the pack of 625 women in the full marathon.

“There was no one else around,” Boller said Monday.

“I was very clearly the first. Everyone told me I was the No. 1 woman who’d come in,” she said. “It was a surprise to me that there was anybody else listed as winner.”

Yanko, an elite runner across multiple disciplines, said she was immediately suspicious upon seeing the preliminary results.

“That time would have qualified her for the Olympic trials in the marathon,” she said of the finishing time initially given to Jennings. “I definitely know she wasn’t around with that time since I went out on 2:41 pace.”

Jennings said she has already qualified for the Boston Marathon next year and was training for the New York Marathon and didn’t want to hurt her knee further by pushing it.

She referred questions to two men she called “the race directors,” Chris Hardman and Richard Busby, both men from Portland who are listed as primary organizers of the Portland Marathon.

Reached by phone, Hardman seemed perplexed as to why Jennings would refer questions about the Santa Rosa race to him. He deferred to Sarabi before cutting off the conversation.

“I’m not the race director,” he said. “I helped set up stuff. I was on the race crew. I was credentialed.”

Despite the error, Boller said she had no complaints about the race organization or management’s response to Jennings’ misplacement.

Boller lived in Santa Rosa for several years and still owns a home here.

“It’s really too bad,” she said. “It’s close as I get to a hometown marathon … It was the first marathon win for me, and it was at home. I had a race that was better than my expectations. It should have been magic days, but it’s really sad that something interferes with it.”

Danny Aldridge, co-owner of race sponsor Heart & Sole running store, said he wasn’t too worried about the disqualification problems in the past three years.

Cases involving runners taking a wrong path and not following the check-in rules aren’t necessarily the fault of organizers, he said.

“As far as putting on the race and how many people love the course, the swag given away and the feedback on Facebook and the stuff that is out there social media-wise, everyone loves the race and it’s growing like crazy,” he said.

The race began in 2009 as a charity benefit for the Valley of the Moon Children’s Foundation and the Sonoma Humane Society. It now allows runners to make the race their own personal fundraiser for a charitable cause of their choosing.

It wasn’t clear Monday if the disqualification of two winners in the past three years would endanger the race’s status as a qualifying event for the Boston Marathon or Olympic trials. At Sunday’s Santa Rosa Marathon, 341 runners, or nearly a quarter of the marathon field, qualified for Boston.

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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