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Runner makes wrong turn right

With some 200 yards to go, Paul Petersen had the race won. He could stride easily to the finish and win the Utah Valley Half-Marathon. It was a cinch, a sure thing. He had a safe lead over his closest rival. All he had to do was pick up the trophy and take a bow.

Then he did something very strange:

He slowed to a jog.

Then he stopped running.

He waited for a competitor to catch up.

He waved him ahead and settled in behind him to take second place.

He handed the win to the guy behind him, Seth Pilkington.

"There was no way I wanted to be on the podium above him," Petersen said of Pilkington. "It wouldn't have been right."

Sportsmanship and fair play aren't dead after all.

Almost no one witnessed the gesture except the two runners and race officials, and that's the way Petersen prefers it. He didn't even want to pose for a photo for this story; he was embarrassed by the attention. That's not why he did what he did.

But who does this? Who gives away a win? The sports pages are filled with stories of athletes who not only will do anything for victory, including drugs, but they'll rub their opponents' faces in it and act badly along the way, too.

As Pilkington and Petersen ran in lockstep the last miles of the half-marathon, having left the rest of the field behind, Petersen turned to Pilkington and told him, "Nice job."

"You, too," Pilkington replied.

So much for trash talk.

Mile after mile they ran together until finally it was time to settle the competition. With about a mile to go, Pilkington made a move and Petersen didn't cover it. Pilkington gradually opened a 25-meter lead and was pulling away.

"I was gapped," says Petersen.

All Pilkington had to do now was navigate the course. There was one final left turn and a short dash to the finish. But the turn wasn't marked clearly and the race official who was supposed to point runners in the right direction didn't show up at his post on time.

Pilkington ran straight instead of turning left.

Seeing this, Petersen was confused. He knew there was supposed to be a turn somewhere in the area.

"I was about to miss it, too," he says. "I hesitated."

He saw a volunteer running toward him, gesturing wildly. "Is this the turn!?" Petersen shouted. The race official said yes.

Petersen slowed down and immediately yelled Pilkington's name to inform him of his error, but his rival, now some 40 meters away, didn't hear him. Petersen, who by now had come to a complete stop, called Pilkington's name again and this time Pilkington looked back. Petersen allowed Pilkington to return and retake his lead, then jogged in behind him to the finish.

"In my mind, he had won the race," says Petersen. "He had broken me. There was no way I was going to outkick him the last 100 meters. He did the work to win and he deserved to win, especially since (the failure to turn) wasn't his fault. The course wasn't marked."

At the finish line, Pilkington thanked Petersen several times and expressed his appreciation for what he had done.

Later Pilkington would say, "That was a nice thing. He didn't have to do that. He could have kept running and not stopped me, and he would have won the race. I appreciate what he did."

Petersen and Pilkington had never met. "I just knew him by reputation," says Petersen.

Pilkington is a former Roy High School star and a five-time All-American at Weber State. The Utah Half-Marathon was his first since being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in March. He has had to adapt to the demands of running with the demands of his disease, with a radically new diet, insulin injections and twice-daily blood tests.

"Carbohydrates make the blood sugar levels go up, so it's a pretty delicate situation since carbs are important to a runner," he says. "I have to figure out carefully what I can eat. I've really had to adapt."

As for Petersen, he is a former Division III All-American from Calvin College in Michigan who moved to Utah in 2001 to complete graduate work in geography at Utah State. After finishing his schooling, he and his wife decided to remain in Logan, and Petersen has become another force in Utah road races.

The Utah Valley race was not the first time he has seen a runner make a wrong turn. During a 2007 road race in Logan, he was running a distant second when the leader made a wrong turn.

"He was too far away for me to get his attention," recalls Petersen.

Petersen figured the leader would rejoin the course by making the turn elsewhere. When he reached the finish, he was surprised to learn that he was the winner, by four minutes.

"It was an empty win," says Petersen. "I wished it could have been different. What happened in the Utah Valley race was a second chance to make it right."

e-mail: drob@desnews.com