Francis Eanes was looking for one name in particular Sunday morning when he arrived at the start line for the Madison Marathon and sized up his competition.
But Ricky Reusser was nowhere to be found.
Eanes took advantage of the four-time defending champion’s absence — and celebrated his 24th birthday — by winning the 26.2-mile race with a time of 2 hours, 31 minutes, 55 seconds.
Eanes, a University of Wisconsin graduate student, had the lead by the end of the first mile and never looked back to finish well ahead of Thomas Brunold of Madison. Brunold, the 2005 champion, finished in 2:40:37 for his third runner-up performance in the event.
“I felt really good; I felt healthy coming into the event,” said Eanes, who was a distance runner at Division III Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pa., but had only completed one marathon prior to Sunday’s race. “But you still never know until race day how your body’s going to respond, how the course is going to be (or) if you get a really bad cramp, how it’s going to affect your race. I’m really happy, and I’m glad things worked out.”
Eanes admitted he had other things working in his favor, too. One of them was the absence of Reusser, a Middleton native and former Iowa State runner who was unable to defend his titles due to an injury.
Another favorite in the event, 2006 winner Joe Kurian of Madison, was on the sidelines because of a broken foot.
Eanes had done his homework heading into the race and knew who to look for at the start line and what kind of time he would need to post to compete for the title.
“You figure out who’s the best guy out there,” Eanes said. “I knew if (Reusser) was here, I could pace with him for at least half. And if you can get pulled through the first half with someone who’s going to end up winning, they’ll at least pull you through to a good time. And it’s just too bad he wasn’t here.”
Baraboo’s Julie Faylona was the women’s winner with a time of 2:59:02.
Like Eanes, the 34-year-old Faylona took the lead early and held it.
“I didn’t think I would win it,” said Faylona, who finished fourth in the 2000 event. “When I came into the race, I just wanted to get into the top three. So then when I was in front, I was just thinking, ‘It’s inevitable; I’m going to get passed.’ ”
Faylona said it helped that the weather was “nice and cool.” Brutal heat forced officials to stop timing last year’s event due to potentially unsafe conditions. That decision led to confusion on the course and some runners were stripped of their timing chip, one of the many complaints that flooded into the offices of Madison Festivals Inc., which organizes the event.
Registration levels in the event, which includes a full, half and quarter marathon and a wheelchair race, were down from around 8,300 last year to 6,797 this year, a decline of 18 percent.
“I think with some positive feedback from runners, we’ll see our numbers go back up next year,” event director Keith Peterson said.
Madison Festivals made several changes and this year’s event seemed to have run much smoother.
Storms moved into the area in the early afternoon and officials offered to bus slower runners back to the start line, but the race never had to be stopped.
“Obviously, the weather helps,” Peterson said. “Not that we can control it, but it definitely helps.”
Eanes saw weather reports earlier in the week that indicated temperatures might reach 80 degrees on race day and began to fear the worst.
“I was kind of thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be like last year,’ ” said Eanes, who didn’t participate in 2010 but heard the horror stories. “But it was really cool. Humid, but with enough water stations that you could hydrate from the beginning. I felt fine.”
Eanes, who grew up near Pittsburgh and recently completed his first year of grad school at UW, ran his first marathon near Chicago last fall and remembers the way he felt from miles 18 to 20. He said he began to struggle at a similar point Sunday but had help pushing through the pain.
“I feel real fortunate to have awesome housemates and friends out on all parts of the course cheering me on,” Eanes said. “There was always someone else to look forward to. It was great feeding off the energy of the crowd and using their energy to get through.”
Eanes had built such a cushion that he didn’t have to strain and could soak in the last few miles knowing victory was near.
“It’s a bittersweet enjoyment because my feet hurt so much and my body was cramping up,” said Eanes, who is training for Ironman Wisconsin in September and plans to be back next year to defend his Madison Marathon title.
And he hopes Reusser returns as well.
“Absolutely,” Eanes said. “It’d be a lot of fun.”