Maria Rivera never considered herself an athlete growing up and didn't take up running until four years ago as a way to lose weight after her pregnancy.
So the 23-year-old from Visalia surprised herself, and probably the rest of the women's field, by going wire to wire for victory Sunday at the Two Cities Marathon & Half.
Rivera covered the 26.2-mile footrace across north Fresno and into Clovis in 3 hours, 3 minutes, 25 seconds. Not bad for her third marathon.
"I wanted to lose the baby fat," said Rivera, a server at Applebee's. "I started running and it became my addiction. I love running. It's my passion."
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The same could be said for many of the 6,000 runners who lined up along Friant Road for the 7 a.m. and 7:30 starts. It was a little chilly -- 47 degrees -- and the pavement was still wet from overnight rain. But overhead were blue skies and absolutely no wind.
"We got really fortunate with the weather," said Debra Schmitt, the race's co-executive director. "For a marathon, this is perfect."
Rivera and men's marathon winner Miguel Nuci of Turlock each took home $1,500. Nuci finished in 2:21:58 to better the course record by more than seven minutes. Jae Yang Hyung of Albuquerque placed second in 2:24:35. Fresno's Jesus Campos was fourth.
The half-marathon winner in 2009, Nuci said he used the race as training for the U.S. Olympic Trails, which will be held Jan. 14 in Houston.
Nuci said the Two Cities Marathon & Half is good preparation because the course, like the one in Houston, is relatively flat. But the Fresno course, he insisted, is not as flat as it seems.
"It's a nice course, but it's not a course to set a fast time," Nuci said. "All those turns, up and down the little tunnels and bike paths, and the last 10K is really kind of hard. It's a gradual uphill. That's where most people really start struggling.
"On the website, the course profile looks flat. But it's not."
Madera's Oswaldo Lopez, the 2011 Badwater champion, won the 50-kilometer ultramarathon in a blistering 3:22:20. Gisele Schaat of Long Beach won the women's division in 4:14:06.
Mario Macias, a Delano native living in Alamosa, Colo., made it two straight in the half-marathon, though his 1:06:17 was two minutes off last year's course record. A Mexican citizen, Macias is hoping to qualify for his country's Olympic team.
Kaitlin Gregg of San Francisco, who won the women's half-marathon in 1:23:38, praised the spectators who lined the course and the 1,500 race volunteers for their positive energy.
"I had a great time," said Gregg, who focuses on five- and 10-kilometer events. "Everyone was so enthusiastic, and because the course is out and back, everyone cheers for you twice."
Former Olympian and noted running author Jeff Galloway, this year's special guest, also gave the event an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
"The personality of a race reflects the personality of an area," Galloway said. "In some cities, people will just nod at you or watch you. That's all. Here, they're cheering and clapping. The energy that's bounced back and forth is reflected on the runner."
Many runners wore personalized bibs, making it easy for spectators to shout personalized encouragements. The crowds were especially dense in the final half-mile as runners turned west from Friant Road onto Audubon Drive and then through Woodward Park's main entrance. Temporary barricades lined the course.
Some runners stagger across the finish line. Some sprint, only to give way to gravity. Some hold their arms above their heads and slap palms with spectators. One guy, wearing a gold Minnie Mouse hat, carried a sign that read "I Am Going To Disneyland."
"I could get into this," said Anita Lovato of Chowchilla, nodding at friend Brittany Swanson, after both finished their first half-marathon. "I can see myself doing this regularly."
"If it helps me stay sexy, I can," Swanson replied.
In the finishers' area, runners gorged themselves on a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, sausage, bread and fresh fruit. For those who still had belly room, ice cream sundaes and beer were provided.
Adjacent to the breakfast area was a large tent containing more than 20 tables where volunteer massage therapists fingered stiff and painful calves, hamstrings and lower backs.
Nine medical tents, including two at the finish line, attended to those with minor injuries. Officials said two runners were transported by ambulance to a local hospital, where they were treated for dehydration.
The best part about running 13.1 or 26.2 miles? You can lay around the rest of the day without feeling a smidge of guilt.
"Now I can go home and take a nice bath," said half-marathon finisher Vika Grinyuk of Fresno.