Becka Kem had a little idea of what she was getting herself into Saturday in the 12th annual Britt Woods Firehouse Run in Jacksonville.
Even though the 32-year-old runner had never run the 10-kilometer main event, she had some knowledge of the unique setup after growing up in Central Point and then relocating with her husband Omer to Jacksonville last September.
RECAP: Jacksonville's Becka Kem, 32, wins the 10-kilometer race with a handicapped time of 57:05, edging runner-up Becky Boyle of Indiana by 72 seconds. Kent Gutches of White City tops Bob Julian Jr. to become the first male finisher, while Scott Breeden posts the fastest actual time at 38:31.
OF NOTE: The start times for runners are staggered depending on age and gender to create more competitive balance.
Still, when Kem took a wrong turn on the first quarter-mile of the woodlands course, it was enough to throw a wrench in her debut.
"When I took the wrong turn at the start, and I took the second-place girl with me, and we had to turn around ... I felt really bad," Kem said. "I was running and I guess I didn't look at the arrows and that was embarrassing because I hate leading people astray."
All embarrassment was wiped away by the end of the course — as well as all of Kem's competitors — as she earned the Firehouse Run victory with a handicapped time of 57 minutes, 5 seconds.
That mark proved to be 72 seconds ahead of Indiana's Becky Boyle (58:17) and just beyond the reach of White City's Kent Gutches, who had a spirited battle to the end to edge Bob Julian Jr. and finish as the top male competitor (58:43). Julian, who placed fourth last year and set the course record of 40:51 in 2010, finished in 58:51.
Scott Breeden recorded the fastest actual time to cover the course, with the 23-year-old runner navigating the trails in 38:31. Breeden was the only runner to finish in under 40 minutes but had a handicapped time of 60:31 to place sixth overall.
"I never anticipate winning a race but I like to have goals," said Kem, whose maiden name is Hartkop. "It's always fun to pick a race and go do it and see how it ends up, especially in trail races because they're just really fun and usually lower key and everybody's really cool."
That latter part especially came in handy when Kem had to retrace her route in the early stages.
"When you're running in the forest, you can't really be having a bad day, right?" she said with a laugh.
Kem graduated from Crater High in 1999 and ran track for three years but didn't take up cross country running until her senior year.
"I did hurdles in track so I wasn't really a distance runner at all," she said. "I was a cyclist for a long time and then my husband and I got burned out on cycling and started running about three years ago. It's cheaper and takes less time and less equipment and you can do it anywhere."
Saturday offered a unique experience given the Britt Woods event's configuration, which is modeled after the Dipsea Run in Mill Valley, Calif.
The race handicaps runners by age and gender to create a more competitive balance, and begins with a staggered start near the upper parking lot of the Britt Festival grounds, with about a one-minute interval between each of the 22 different classifications.
Organized by race director and former winner Doug Naversen, the race features four major hills, with about a four-mile first loop followed by a two-mile stretch to the finish. It was initially created as a fundraiser for the Jacksonville fire department and as a way to acquaint people with the beauty of the local woodlands.
"It was kind of fun being set up that way," Kem said of starting 14 minutes back of the first runners. "I enjoyed it because you don't start in a normal place, where you typically all line up and go and know where you are in placement as you're running because of that. There's always people ahead of you and people behind you so I had no idea how many people were in front of me that I needed to catch."
Constantly having someone on the horizon to track down helped spark the competitive side of Kem, who only registered for the run a few days ago but is in training for the upcoming 50K Siskiyou Outback in Ashland. She runs five days a week and has a 15-month-old son, Karsten.
"I like rabbits so it was fun chasing after one person and then another person," she said. "You end up just passing people and then finally I got to a station with about two miles to go and they told me there was one person ahead of me. At that point I was like, 'Oh, OK, I guess if I catch that one person then I win it.' Until then I really didn't know how many people were ahead of me."
A record 123 runners competed in the three Britt Woods events, with 80 of those tackling the 10K featured race.
Last year's champion, Suzanne Ray, was unable to defend her title due to injury. The 61-year-old Ray, of Jacksonville, is a three-time winner of the race and joins the late Ric Sayre (two wins) as the only multiple title holders at the event.
"If Suzanne Ray comes back next year, she'll give me a run for my money for sure," Kem said of potentially defending her crown. "That's probably what gave me a slight advantage because she wasn't there and also because I run around that woodlands park a lot when I'm training."
Britt Woods Firehouse Run
Top 20 Results
Place, Name, Handicap time, Actual time
1. Becka Kem, 57:05, 43:05; 2. Becky Boyle, 58:17, 44:17; 3. Kent Gutches, 58:43, 43:43; 4. Bob Julian, 58:51, 40:51; 5. Sera Mathewes, 59:25, 45:25; 6. Scott Breeden, 60:31, 38:31; 7. Jared Parmer, 61:10, 40:10; 8. Jim Clover, 61:14, 61:14; 9. Joe Griffin, 62:16, 47:16; 10. Neil Olsen, 62:21, 44:21.
11. Dick Boothe, 63:17, 56:17; 12. Shannon Schiavone, 63:34, 53:34; 13. Mike Davis, 63:46, 49:46; 14. Scott Becker, 64:27, 42:27; 15. Charles Hodge, 65:33, 57:33; 16. Seth Weintraub, 65:41, 65:41; 17. Patrick Mathewes, 65:54, 50:54; 18. Bonnie Havens, 66:18, 56:18; 19. Elizabeth Grubb, 66:49, 57:49; 20. Javonna Marroquin, 67:03, 53:03.