Instead of following the designated track, Saolo and Kibet had followed a marathon volunteer who mistakenly led both runners off the route, automatically disqualifying the two Kenyans from the 26.2-mile run that begins and ends in downtown Moline, Ill.
Their loss was Tyler Pence’s win.
Pence, the head track and cross-country coach at the University of Illinois at Springfield, witnessed everything unfolding and saw his opening. He stuck to the marathon’s path, becoming the first U.S. runner since 2001 to win the race.
“It was pretty obvious where to go out there so I don’t know what went on,” Pence, 28, told the Quad-City Times. “I was about 20 seconds back so I kind of saw it happening but I’m not going to shout. It’s not my job.”
He and the other runners did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.
The race, which is held annually on the fourth Sunday of September, is a Boston Marathon qualifier. It covers four cities, three bridges, two states and one island.
Saolo, who was close to beating his own record before the mistake occurred, is the grandson of Joseph Nzau, a prominent Kenyan runner who won the Quad-City Times Bix 7 twice in the 1980s. The runner, who had been training ahead of the marathon with his grandfather in Santa Fe, N.M., was fundraising for his family. Saolo supports his family by running, and has lost a significant amount of income after many races were canceled during the pandemic, the fundraiser stated.
He would have taken home $3,000 had he won first place.
Saolo and Kibet were about halfway to the finish line when they spotted a marathon volunteer cycling through Arsenal Island, in the middle of the route, the local paper reported. The pair followed the cyclist, who instead of turning in the direction of the path, biked straight ahead.
Although the volunteer made a mistake, race director Joe Moreno told the Quad-City Times that the route was properly marked and that experienced runners like Saolo and Kibet attended a meeting the day before the race to get familiarized with its course.
“At that intersection where that incident happened, the course was well-marked,” Moreno said. “The signage is well-displayed. The volunteers are there. And the fourth element is those elite runners have a meeting the day before to get familiar with the course.”
By the time Saolo and Kibet got to the finish line, Moreno explained to the pair that they had been automatically disqualified for taking an unofficial route. The cyclist who accidentally led them the wrong way stood feet away from the pair close to crying.
“I messed up royally,” the cyclist said, according to the Quad-City Times.
Moreno is expected to review video of the race. Saolo and Kibet might still be compensated in some way, Moreno told the newspaper.
“I don’t want this to be a total loss for them so I think there is going to be some compensation for them,” he said. “That shows that we are taking some responsibility ourselves. As race director, I feel somewhat responsible.”
As for Pence, he was just excited to beat his personal record.
“I obviously came today with no hope of [beating my best time] but sometimes it just comes,” he told the Quad-City Times after the race.