- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

Defending champions Michael Wardian and Susan Graham-Gray return for the second running of the National Marathon this morning in the District.

Wardian again comes in as the race favorite. However, Graham-Gray should be challenged by at least one woman with faster times than hers.

The elite athletes will be part of the more than 4,500 entrants, more than twice the number who participated in last year’s inaugural event sponsored by the Greater Washington Sports Alliance. Mayor Adrian Fenty is the official starter and is also in the marathon.

“We have at least 1,700 marathoners and at least 2,800 half-marathoners,” said Keith Dowling, second-year race director and former elite marathoner. “I just wanted to get to that double point, and we got there a couple of days ago.”

While last year’s course took runners through the hills of Prince George’s County over the last half of the race, today’s marathon will be run entirely in the District. It again will start and finish at RFK Stadium and take in the National Mall, Rock Creek Park and Adams Morgan along with dozens of Washington’s city streets.

Dowling may get lucky with the weather, which appears to be cooling from yesterday’s relatively warm temperatures.

“We are looking at 53 for the high — perfect marathon weather, cloudy [with] a little drizzle,” he said.

That also suits Wardian, a 32-year-old marathon veteran from Arlington. He’s on a roll after finally notching a spot at the 2008 U.S. Olympic marathon trials with a stellar 2:21:37 and third-place finish at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach last weekend.

Wardian insists he is recovered from Shamrock.

“I feel great,” he said. “Ready to go. I am hoping to run a little faster [than Shamrock]. I was a little frustrated midrace with the conditions there [wind gusting at 20 mph]. I should be able to run faster than last year [2:30:55]. I’d like to knock a good performance for the Sports Alliance and the hometown crowd.”

In true Wardian fashion, today’s marathon is his third in four weeks, beginning with B&A; Trail Marathon in Severna Park, Md., on March 4 (2:25:30). Then he goes to marathons in Knoxville, Tenn., next weekend, Ocean City the week after and Boston in mid-April.

Three weeks later, he will attempt to be recognized by Guinness World Records when he pushes his 10-month-old son, Pierce Miler (18 pounds), in a baby jogger at the May 6 Frederick Marathon. The record is 2:49:00.

He would have had some competition today from Michael Cox (personal record of 2:21:52), but Cox withdrew Thursday with a calf injury.

Kyle Smits, a Georgetown graduate from Baltimore, could place in the top five.

Graham-Gray, a 38-year-old legally blind athlete from Greencastle, Pa., said she didn’t think she would break her personal best of 2:52:57.

Dowling pointed to Katie Blackett as the women’s favorite.

Blackett, a 29-year director of finance for a national nonprofit who lived in Arlington when she was 5 years old, said she came to the National Marathon because of Dowling’s reputation for race management.

Blackett was a scholarship athlete at Villanova, not in the famed distance program but in the long jump, triple jump and heptathlon.

“At Villanova, I absolutely hated distance running until after I graduated college,” she said. “Then my dad took me out for a few long runs.”

Her resume boasts participation in both the 2000 and 2004 Olympic marathon trials, a top finish at the 10K mountain trail national championships and a completion at the 2002 World Ironman Triathlon championships in Hawaii.

She ran 2:48:14 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon in January 2006, although her personal best is 2:40:25 at the 2003 St. George Marathon. She said her husband of one year, Matt Schneider, should not be too far behind her at the finish.

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