By Mark Lewis

Walking up to the starting line, Hart’s Jennie Gottardo really didn’t know how she would do at Saturday’s 31st annual Seaway Run.

That issue was cleared up as she crossed the finish line in 20: 28 to win the women’s 5k open division.

Hart's Jennie Gottardo surprised the field by winning the women's 5k race at Saturday's Seaway Run. Gottardo is just 14 years old. Photos/Mark Lewisreally didn't know how she would do at Saturday's 31st annual Seaway Run. That became clear as she crossed the finish line in 20: 28 to win the women's 5k open division.

“I wasn’t sure where I’d place” said Gottardo, who is just 14 years old. “It was pretty nice out there, so I just kept on running.”

In fact, three of the four open division winners at Saturday’s event came out of nowhere to take their respective titles. Sand Lake’s Kyle Starr, who runs cross country for Muskegon Community College, took the men’s 15k event, finishing the scenic course in 55:24, while 2004 Whitehall grad Elizabeth ‘Libby’  Bigelow (Carpenter) won the women’s 15k race in 1:03:01.

Six-time winner Erik Westbrook from Fremont won the men’s 5k event, crossing the finish line in a a blazing 15:33, averaging a straight five minutes per mile in the 3.1-mile race.

Sand Lake's Kyle Starr, who runs for the Muskegon Community College cross country team, won the open 15k.

“Perfect weather, no wind,” said Westbrook, 22, who has won six of the nine times  he’s run the Seaway Run. “It was a great day to put in a good time.”

Earlier this season, and feeling like he was in a rut, Westbook stepped up his mileage, to spectacular results.

“I felt good, so I didn’t really follow any set plan,” said the recent Detroit Mercy graduate. “I just wanted to run my race.” Westbrook said he separated from the pack at about the two-mile mark. “The (Seaway Run) is just such a great atmosphere. It felt nice to do so well.”

Greg Helmer and Gayle finished as respective men’s and womens 5k masters champs, and Pedro Pantaleon and Beth Ciangi were men’s and women’s 15k masters winners, respectively.

Starr’s win in the 15k highlighted an outstanding day for the MCC cross country program, which was relaunched a couple years ago. Starr’s teammates, Whitehall’s Matt Kring, an All-American runner for the Jayhawks, and Reeths-Puffer grad Devon Joslin, finished third and fourth overall, respectively, and first and second in their respective age groups. An acolyte of Starr’s, Shay Ostyn of Grant, finished second overall in the 15k, winning the 15-19 age division in 55:47.

Fremont product Erik Westbrook took the open 5k title.

“I’ve always looked up to (Starr),” said Ostyn, who will be running for Aquinus College in the fall. “So it was cool to finish so close (to him). We’ve always been like, ‘I want to be (Starr).”

Carpenter, a frequent area standout runner and Central Michigan grad, took the women’s 15k due to good planning.

“I didn’t want to kill myself going out too fast,” she said. Carpenter took third last year, though she may not have been at her best in 2011. “I ran a steeplechase (race) the day before last year’s (Seaway Run), so there was that.”

Asked why in 2011 she ran the two races so close together, she replied, “It’s not very often you get to run (a steeplechase).”

Whitehall's Elizabeth 'Libby' Bigelow (Carpenter) won the women's open 15k race.

Suffering a stress fracture early this season, Carpenter wasn’t sure she would be up for this year’s Seaway. Yet, there she was leading the pack as she crossed the finish line. “It’s such a beautiful course; there’s lots to look at.”

No longer primarily sponsored by the Muskegon Chronicle, Mercy Health is now the race’s Gold Sponsor.

Full race results are available at