Wrong turn adds controversy at Pier to Peak

Hector Sandoval runs in the final mile of the race

As the hearty runners made their way up Gibraltar Road in the grueling Pier to Peak Half Marathon, they saw the scorched hillsides left by the Jesusita and Tea Fires.

There was something burning on the mountain again Sunday morning but it wasn’t brush. It was the emotions of some of the lead runners who missed a turnaround point and lost valuable time and a high finish. Those runners voluntarily dropped out of the race.

Eric Forte stayed on the course and smoked the field to win for the second time in three years. He covered the 13.1-mile race from the Friendship Dolphins Fountain at Stearns Wharf to Lookout Park at La Cumbre Peak in 1 hour, 35 minutes. 06 seconds.

Overall winner Eric Forte

Overall winner Eric Forte

Sara Dillman defended her women’s title, but her time was considerably slower because she was one of about eight runners who ran through a turnaround point near the 11th mile at the East Camino Cielo turnoff from Gibraltar Road.

“A bunch of us went the wrong way,” said a disappointed Dillman, who placed eighth overall in 1:54.13. She was sixth last year in 1:47.20.


Fortunately for Dillman, she realized she had gone off course after about a mile and was able to back track and finish the race.

“We went an extra mile at the turnaround,” she said. “I just kept following the guys in front of me. There were about eight of us.”

Another runner at the finish area said there was “one guy who was picked up (by car) that was three to four miles out.”

Said Dillman, “Last year that was where we turned around and we should have known, but I just followed the guys in front of me and none of us ever realized that was where we were supposed to turn. We all just kept going forward.  There was a whole gaggle of us out there.”

Women's winner Sarah Dillman

Women's winner Sarah Dillman

Shigy Suzuki was among the group that missed the turnaround cones on East Camino Cielo and kept going. He was later picked up by a driver and was disqualified.

“At Camino Cielo, I kept going straight,” said Suzuki, who had run in five previous races but missed last year’s when the turnaround section was added to the course to make it a full 13.1-mile race. “I know one guy was running ahead of me and I just chased him. The cones don’t say anything. There were two cones on both sides of the street. If chalk showed the turnaround, I would have recognized it.”

Suzuki said he was in fourth place at the time. In his previous Pier to Peak races, he said he finished the race in times of 1:37 to 1:42. When he looked at his watch and noticed he was still running at 1:45, he knew something was wrong.

“It’s disappointing because we are racing,” he said. “I was fourth at the time, but know one knows. I was disqualified because I went off the course.”

Race director Jake Clinton explained that runners received information on the course in the race packets sent to them, but, he said he was taking responsibility for not marking the turnaround point better.

“I screwed up, I’d eaten chalk,” he said. “I was out of chalk. I told the volunteers at the corner, ‘Let (the runners) know they need to turn at the corner right there at the hill.’ It’s almost in sight. I instructed the volunteers to turn them and pass them along. Somehow the first eight runners (after Forte) apparently weren’t aware of that. They didn’t gather that information from reading the stuff I sent beforehand or they didn’t hear from the volunteers.”

Trish Davidson on the home stretchTodd Ruskauff, the third-place finisher, said there was no one at the turnaround spot to inform the runners.

Clinton was surprised when he heard that Dillman had run through the turnaround.

“That’s why there were cones on both sides of the street, to really kind of indicate it,” he said. “I put that extra cone, normally I just have one. I was out of chalk, I didn’t have hand chalk or any chalk. It was my error.”

The runners who went off course were unable to follow Forte because he was so far ahead of them.

Forte is very comfortable going up Gibraltar. He’s been doing it for years on a bicycle.

“I love this. I’ve ridden this climb hundreds of times on my bike and live for this climb,” he said. Forte, 42, is a veteran road racer for the Chicken Ranch cycling team. He said he’s been racing on foot for about three years.

“I’m just starting to reach my stride,” he said.

Forte said injuries kept him from running in last year’s event, which was won by Aaron Gillen.

“I time it right. The two times I raced Aaron didn’t,” he said.

Forte opened up his big lead when he reached the foot of Gibraltar and was pleased with his time.

“I didn’t feel like i was going nearly as fast. My time is better than I thought it would be. I didn’t wear a watch, so I was just going as hard as I could.”

George Williams, 50, finished second in 1:48.11.

“I was amazed,” he said. “I thought I was in ninth place and all of a sudden they tell me I’m second. But apparently a bunch of people went too far, so it really doesn’t count.”

Williams, who recently celebrated his birthday by running ultramarathons of 50-kilometers and 50 miles, said he was stunned when he reached the turnaround point all alone.

Two runners keep pace before making the final turn up to the finish“When I did the turnaround I expected to see someone and I didn’t, which meant they were a lot further ahead than I thought they were,” he recalled. “At that point, I just gave up the thought about passing anyone and hoped nobody would pass me.”

Nobody did.

Ruskauff, of Santa Barbara, was next in 1:49.59, Brian Zant of Carpinteria finished in fourth place (1:51.56) and Goleta’s John Latto was fifth (1:52.24). Santa Barbara’s Laura Turner was the second-place woman behind Dillman in 1:57.21 and Goleta’s Kathryn O’Brien took third in 1:57.42

“It was disappointing, but we still made it,” said Dillman of the marred race. “At least I had friendships out there, the guys that were with me.”