Three months of training paid off for Jesus Campos with his first marathon victory -- and three months' rent.
Campos sped away from the pack early and went on to capture Sunday's Eye-Q Two Cities Marathon & Half in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 53 seconds.
The senior at Fresno State bettered his time from last year by 9 minutes over the 26.2-mile course across north Fresno and into Clovis.
Robert Hernandez of Fresno was second in 2:29:31, gaining ground on Campos as the runners headed south on Friant Road to the finish line in Woodward Park.
"I thought he was going to catch me," Campos said. "The last miles were 6:10 -- real slow. I just wanted to run a fast time."
Campos and women's overall champion Lori Buratto each took home $1,500. This is the first time the race, which added the marathon in 2008, has awarded prize money.
"I'd like to save it. But I go to school, you know?" Campos said with a grin. "That's three months rent."
Buratto, a biology teacher from Lake Spokane, Wash., finished in 3:05:13 -- more than 5 minutes ahead of the course record. Theresa Berg of Fresno was third in 3:13:31.
Local favorites Roosevelt Cook and Kara June both were second in the half marathon. Miguel Nuci of Turlock won the men's race in 1:07:42. Sylvia Mosqueda of Los Angeles topped the women's field in 1:16:48.
"I've won a few small races, but this is the best I've run," said Buratto, wearing the wreath of leaves that she and Campos received after they crossed the finish line. "It was an awesome course and really well organized. It's a perfect day for a run."
Crisp temperatures in the mid 40s and virtually no wind welcomed the mass of nearly 5,000 runners and hundreds of spectators as they lined up for the start on Friant Road. The half marathon went off at 7 a.m. -- it took 41/2 minutes for everyone to cross the starting line -- followed 30 minutes later by the marathon.
Most runners said they liked the redesigned marathon course, which is almost flat except for a sinister hill on Old Friant Road (about Mile 22) that comes when the legs are at their most rubbery.
Everything about the event, from the size of the field and finisher's area to the number of course monitors and port-a-potties, was bigger this year. And it could keep growing. Co-race director Nancy Talley said the goal is to attract 10,000 runners by 2012.
What's more, a regional cable sports network has expressed interest in televising next year's race, said William Broomfield, the events director for Fresno's parks.
"If we do that, this race will be even bigger," Broomfield said. "We can get some of the top runners from around the world."
For now, locals like Campos and Hernandez get the chance to shine. Campos studies kinesiology and Spanish at Fresno State; Hernandez recently graduated from Fresno Pacific, where he was an NAIA All-America marathoner.
Campos didn't like the slow early pace, so he broke away at mile 3 and ran out front the rest of the way. Hernandez made his push at the halfway mark and gained more than a minute, but it wasn't enough.
"I was slowing down, and he [Hernandez] was closing the gap," Campos said. "The crowd helped keep me going."
Neither Cook nor June, former track standouts at Fresno State, was able to repeat after winning last year's half marathon, thanks to stiff competition from out of town.
Nuci, who handed Cook a rare defeat in the Fresno-Clovis area, owns two third-place finishes at the California International Marathon in Sacramento and was 15th at the Boston Marathon.
"It's hard to be a big fish in a small pond," said Cook, who coaches track and cross country at Roosevelt High. "I love to represent for Fresno. But when you get prize money, a lot of fast people start showing up."