PROVIDENCE --- Kelsey Braithwaite's first experience competing in a half marathon took place prior to her freshman year at Box Elder High School in the summer of 2008.
The former BYU distance runner returned to that very same race 13 years later and emerged victorious against a deep women's field. Braithwaite also fared well against the men as she placed 10th overall with an impressive time of 1 hour, 16 minutes, 17 seconds, at the Top of Utah Half Marathon, which concluded on a hazy Saturday morning at Zollinger Park.
"I like to think back to when I was like 14 and how simple running was back then, and when I fell in love with running," Braithwaite said. "And I like try to channel that same energy in here, you know, not take it too seriously and just do it because I love it."
This was the third time Braithwaite has showcased her talents at Cache Valley's typically annual half marathon, which didn't take place a year ago due to COVID-19. The Perry native was the women's runner-up in 2019, and she clocked in nearly two full minutes faster Saturday.
Ironically enough, men's champion Jaydn Asay also competed in his third TOU Half Marathon. The former Utah Valley University harrier edged Fritz Van de Kamp by two seconds to claim the title two years ago, and he was able to reign supreme in convincing fashion Saturday.
Asay, who placed third at this race in 2018, covered the 13.1-mile course in 1:08:21, which was nearly three minutes faster than the silver medalist. This is one of the 27-year-old's favorite half marathons.
"Historically, it's one of the flatter half marathons in Utah, so I feel like it's a little bit more of an honest effort," said Asay, who praised the TOU Half organizers and how well they treat the runners. "And then the competition generally is really, really deep. This year was a little bit less so, maybe because of the COVID stuff last year, but a lot of times there's 10 guys under 1:10, so this kind of competition is what I like."
Unlike two years ago, Asay was by himself essentially the entire race, which begins at the Hyrum Hydro Park up Blacksmith Fork Canyon. Running solo is not something the Orem resident really likes in a competitive race and said "today ended up being more of a tempo effort."
"It's definitely different," he said. "I mean, you have to decide how much you care about seeing a fast time vs. just mailing it in and getting the win, and it's hard to find that balance for sure."
Asay did enjoy what he called a pretty brisk tailwind heading down Blacksmith Fork Canyon and said "the tailwind helps makes the transition (to the flat section) a lot smoother than a lot of the races that do the same thing."
Like many of his fellow competitors, Asay has relished more of a return to normalcy in the racing scene this summer. The lion's share of longer road races around the Beehive State last year were cancelled due to the pandemic.
"Last year I would start training for a race and then have it get cancelled, and then start training again and have it get cancelled," Asay said. "And (so I) ended up doing a lot less training than I would normally would do because it just kills your motivation to train hard. So it's exciting having races put on again."
The next athlete to cross the finish line was Logan Petty, who clocked in at 1:11:06. The Layton resident was followed by a pair of Cache Valley natives in Nibley's Eric Nelson (1:12:42) and Logan's Mark Summers (1:13:26). Nelson was the runner-up at the Blacksmith Fork Freedom Run last month, while Summers was third.
Joining the aforementioned runners in the top 10 on the men's side were Bob Baldwin (1:15:34), Mark Currell (1:15:50), Hyrum's Ryan Jenks (1:15:56), Steve Kindred (1:15:59), Brad Harding (1:16:14) and Melchor Suastel (1:16:35). Currell, Jenks and Kindred, who also claimed the master men's title, were only separated by nine seconds.
The conditions Saturday were optimal for fast times, with the exception of the less-than-ideal air quality. At least, the haze was noticeable to Asay.
"Oh, definitely. I mean, mostly right when I came out of the canyon, it seemed like the air was a little bit clearer in the canyon, but you could kind of taste it, get a little bit of a cough the last five miles, so yeah it was definitely a factor," Asay said.
Conversely, the air quality wasn't as problematic for Braithwaite, who turned a lot of heads when she broke the girls course record with her blistering time of 17:36 at the 4A State Cross Country Championships as a senior at Box Elder.
"I didn't think about it at all," she said. "I don't know, I guess I'm not too sensitive to the smoke, which is very fortunate because a lot of my cross country kids have been complaining about it the last month."
Braithwaite now resides in Brigham City and is an assistant cross country and track & field coach for the Bees. It's a job she thoroughly enjoys.
"It's the best," said Braithwaite, who won a half marathon two summers ago in Oregon. "I love coaching. Yeah, I just want to help them find the same joy and satisfaction that running gives me in my life because I know it's helped me so much. It's a good feeling."
Braithwaite was pushed "really hard" Saturday by former Utah State distance runner Jackie Hendrickson, "which was awesome," Braithwaite asserted. The two athletes ran together until mile nine or 10, Braithwaite said. Hendrickson completed the race in 1:16:48, which was 32 seconds behind her fellow competitor.
"It was nice," Braithwaite said. "I don't think I would have ran the time I did if she wasn't here because I think we were just helping keep other each accountable for the pace we wanted to run."
Braithwaite and Hendrickson were followed by Madey Dickson (1:18:00), Christina Perry (1:19:19) and Janel Zick (1:19:52), who all broke the 1:20 barrier in a competitive women's field. All five of those runners also finished in the top 20 overall. There were 650 athletes that completed the course.
Rounding out the top 10 in the women's competition were Ayisha Mitchell (1:23:18), defending champion Savannah Berry (1:23:51), Hyrum's McKale Bladen (1:26:40), Jessica Stanford --- the master women's champion --- and standout triathlete Emily Mortensen, who is a recent USU graduate. Bladen won the women's title at the Freedom Run last month.