|Clara (Grandt) Santucci celebrates her victory at last Saturday's Pittsburgh Marathon.
|Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo
Ever since the completion of her All-American distance running career at West Virginia University four years ago, Clara (Grandt) Santucci's No. 1 goal has always been to make the U.S. Olympic marathon team.
Well, that goal just got a major boost last weekend when she won the Pittsburgh Marathon. Finishing first in a significant race like that with more than 23,000 participants has a way of getting people's attention.
Besides securing a running sponsorship that will enable her to travel and train freely without draining her personal finances (she actually signed with Saucony just days before last Saturday's race), the big victory now provides Santucci the possibility of earning future appearance fees for competing in some of the nation's best races.
Clara was a national-class runner at WVU, twice earning All-America honors in the 10K, but Sean Cleary, her coach at West Virginia, always believed that she was better suited for the much longer races. He felt that way even going back to her high school days when he first saw her running on those cinder tracks in Doddridge County.
The plan was to eventually build her up to the longer distances throughout her collegiate career and then beyond.
"Marathons are suited to my strengths because I'm a strong hill runner," Santucci says.
In 2011, a year after she graduated from West Virginia, Santucci entered the Boston Marathon and proceeded to stun those associated with the sport when she finished 16th overall with a sub-2:30 clocking. She was the third American to cross the finish line that day, which immediately put her name among some of the top young marathoners in the U.S.
Santucci followed up her surprising Boston Marathon performance with a ninth-place finish at last year's Bank of America Chicago Marathon that included an Olympic Trials-qualifying time of 2:31.39.
Then came Pittsburgh.
She had invitations to run at other prestigious races this spring, but she chose to compete in the Steel City event because she was familiar with the course and had the opportunity to perform in front of friends and family. She could race against a solid field in the most supportive environment possible – giving her sort of a home-field advantage.
"I felt like I had a good chance to compete and win," she admitted. "There were a few good Ethiopian women here to compete against, but I felt like it was a good step in learning how to win. I've been in a lot of really competitive marathons, but I've never been a winner."
It also turned out to be beneficial having friends and family at the race to encourage and cheer her on.
"Having the hometown crowd support was definitely a plus," she said. "There is nothing like competing near home because people know you and can see what you're doing and understand it better. I race so far away sometimes that people around me who support me don't always get to see the benefits of all the work. It was really great and I felt good about other people being able to see that."
Santucci said her race plan was simply to win it and not run a predetermined time.
"I was going for a winning strategy and a winning race," she explained. "Whatever the time was it was going to be. Now that I've run the course, I feel like I can run faster on it knowing how I feel throughout the entire thing. If I run it again in the future I would go for the course record."
For anyone from the state who follows and supports local athletes, it was certainly cool to see pictures of Clara in the Pittsburgh newspapers standing at the finish line with an American flag draped around her shoulders.
And those who saw Dilliner, Pa. next to her name in the race results will quickly point out that her hometown is West Union, W.Va., she is a graduate of West Virginia University and is currently employed in Morgantown, W.Va. at HealthWorks. Her husband, Jason, also works locally at Mylan and was once a high school state cross country champion in Maryland, so he clearly understands the rigors of the sport.
In fact, both employer and husband have been very supportive of her running career.
"(HealthWorks has) been really great," she said. "They are flexible and are understanding of my race schedule and my training schedule. They want me to succeed as much as I do. When you have people who believe in you - and want you to go for the same goals that you do - it's always a good thing."
After planning to take the rest of this month off (she has a scheduled May 22 appearance at PNC Park to throw out the first pitch before the Pittsburgh Pirates play the Washington Nationals), Santucci says she will get back to full-scale training in June.
She is one of about a half-dozen or so former Mountaineer women's track athletes currently preparing for an opportunity to reach the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.
Santucci said she is considering doing some altitude work in either Flagstaff, Ariz. or Colorado Springs, Colo. in the near future before attempting to qualify for the World Championships taking place in Beijing, China in August, 2015.
"They have yet to release when the qualifying window will be," she said.
In the meantime, Santucci will continue to train right here in Morgantown with her college coach and a running group that consists of current and former college athletes. So if you happen to be in the area and you are driving around town and you see Clara running the streets, be sure to honk your horn and show your support for an aspiring Olympic athlete.
After all, how often is it that we get to see a world-class athlete training on the very same streets that we use every day?