Monday, May 5, 2003

Aerni, Veneziano marathon champs

Local runners win big at Pig

By Shannon Russell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Runners start
Runners take off along Mehring Way.
(Photo by Craig Ruttle)
Photo gallery
Minutes after running a Flying Pig Marathon relay, local standouts John Sence and Henry Dennis hovered before a TV in the Montgomery Inn Banquet Center and waited for the first marathoner to cross the finish.

"Well," Sence finally said, as a racer loped forward and accepted a leafy crown. "There he is."

But who was he?

In a racing field dominated by unknown runners, Walnut Hills graduate John Aerni emerged in a record-setting performance Sunday morning. Not only did Aerni (pronounced Ernie) win the fifth annual Flying Pig in 2:27:44, but the 23-year-old is the first Cincinnatian - and the youngest runner - to bring home the bacon.

Sunday also marked the first time the top men's and women's marathoners hailed from the Cincinnati area. West Chester resident Lisa Veneziano, 38, won the Pig's women's division in 2:57:54.

The day was nearly perfect by racing standards, with dry 43-degree temperatures at the 6:30 a.m. marathon start. The sun came out early and remained through the 2 p.m. Victory Party at Yeatman's Cove.

A record 9,762 entrants participated in the Pig's Wheelchair Race, Flying Pig Marathon, Ernst & Young 4-Person Relay, Outback Steakhouse 2-person relay and inaugural Papa John's 10K. Races began on Mehring Way behind Paul Brown Stadium and ended at Sawyer Point. More than 150,000 fans lined the course, which included a new route through Over-the-Rhine.

A grinning Aerni collapsed in a chair after his victory.

"This is my first marathon," he said "I didn't know what I was getting into."

Aerni had never run more than 24 miles at once before Sunday but eluded second-place Ciccarello Pellegrino of Cleveland (2:35:21) and third-place Dave Ackerman of Milford (2:39:50). Aerni tried to keep pace with the Team Cincinnati relay team - Sence, Dennis, Jill Tranter and Scott LeCates - which finished in 2:19:36.

Long before he considered the Pig, Aerni was a running champ at Grinnell College in Iowa. He still owns the school's fourth-best 8,000-meter cross-country time (24:49) and has school records in two outdoor track events: the 10,000 meter run (31:04) and the 3,000-meter steeplechase (9:08).

"That's a race for crazy people," Aerni said of the steeplechase, a footrace over hurdles and a water jump. "I figured marathons were the next step."

Now a Grinnell assistant track coach, Aerni made the 565-mile trip back to Cincinnati for a crack at the Pig, which his mother, Kathy, walked in 2002. Last year's top three male finishers didn't register, leaving the race wide open.

The course took Aerni as close as one mile from his parents' Oakley home. He said he "felt really good" for the first 20 miles and was on-and-off the last 6 miles but overall "never felt terrible."

His father, Dan Aerni, rode a purple 10-speed bike to 11 different points along the course.

"I just wanted to support him in as many places as I could," said Dan Aerni, who wasn't surprised John won. "He trained hard and is in good shape."

Now that he's conquered the Pig, will Aerni come back? Don't count on it.

"I just took a teaching position in Alaska," Aerni said.

Aerni will be teaching Social Studies 400 miles west of Anchorage in a school district about the size of Ohio. His main modes of transport will be plane, dogsled and snowmobile. Before that he taught for a year at a rural high school in South Africa.



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