Vargas hits stride outside ring

In his career as a boxer, former world champion Fernando Vargas proved he could deal a knockout blow, with 22 KOs among his 26 professional victories.

Sunday morning, he proved he can go the distance, too.

Vargas ran the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half-Marathon, and the first-timer covered the 13.1-mile distance in surprisingly effective fashion, hitting the finish line at Mandalay Bay in 2 hours, 3 minutes, 16 seconds.

When he was in training, Vargas said he'd often do 90-minute runs, but he never tracked the distance -- the runs were usually to help him make weight for his fights.

But urged along by close friends, and with a chance to run for breast-cancer awareness and research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, Vargas was persuaded to compete. And he was ready to go by the 7 a.m. start time.

"I got up early, had my oatmeal," said Vargas, now a Las Vegas resident after moving here eight months ago. "I felt good. I was running the whole time. I never felt like stopping."

He was enjoying himself early on in the race, with a sea of 28,000 runners around him.

"I was thinking, 'I'm passing a lot of people. I'm doing really good.' "

And he was thrilled when he realized he would actually finish.

"When I saw Mandalay Bay on the way back to the finish line, I was like, 'I'm gonna finish this. I can't believe I'm gonna finish this,' " Vargas said as his 3-year-old daughter, Mibella, tugged at his leg. "And then I picked it up, and I was sprinting at the end."

Vargas, who turns 33 Tuesday, wasn't the only athlete taking a stab at another sport. Former San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig also ran the half-marathon, faring even better than Vargas with a time of 1:50:52.

■ CLARK COUNTY STANDOUTS -- Las Vegan Jeffrey Smith was the top Clark County finisher in the marathon, clocking 2:51:30, good for 24th overall in the men's field.

Fellow Las Vegan Melissa Roche was the top local woman at 3:08:53, placing 11th overall in the women's field.

Angie Bestwick, a stalwart on the local running circuit, was the top local in the women's half-marathon, taking 18th in 1:24:54, and Martin Conrad was the top local male, finishing in 1:16:03.

■ DARGATZ'S BIG FINISH -- Katie Dargatz returned for this year's half-marathon, running in memory of her boyfriend/soon-to-be fiancé Eric Reitman, who died two days after the couple ran in last year's race.

Dargatz was joined by her younger brother and two friends, and finished in 2:24:13 -- 24 minutes better than last year.

"It was fun, and we finished," she said. "And Eric would have been proud."

■ A WHEEL BIG DEAL -- Sandra Rush of Fallbrook, Calif., took the women's marathon wheelchair title, just a few days shy of the 24th anniversary of becoming disabled. She said she fell out of a tree picking mistletoe on Dec. 10, 1986.

Rush, 49, has only been racing for three years, and she's rapidly turned herself into an elite competitor. She completed Sunday's race in 2:29:26.

"Never did I ever think I'd be traveling the world as a wheelchair racer," she said. "I got a passport last year. I never thought I'd leave California."

Scott Parsons of San Jose, Calif., took the men's wheelchair title in 1:47:08.

■ GOOD SHOW -- Adam Zocks, vice president/general manager of race owner Competitor Group, was thrilled with virtually all aspects of the race, though he noted the great weather was key. Race-time temperatures were in the mid-40s, with no wind, and it warmed up nicely throughout the morning.

"The weather made a huge difference," Zocks said as concert headliner Bret Michaels and his band jammed among thousands of runners-turned-fans at the post-race finish-line party. "We put on a great show and great event last year, and once you do that, you've got to do better the next year. I think we did, and I think we raised the bar.

"All the adjustments we made worked. There was such a great vibe at the start line. It was just a blast. I couldn't be happier with the event."