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Thousands of runners came out to participate in the Naples Daily News Half Marathon in downtown Naples on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017. Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News

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The last time Tyler McCandless ran a race, he says it did not go well.

An Olympic hopeful, McCandless came into Sunday’s Naples Daily News Half Marathon looking for a boost after struggling in the New York City marathon in the fall.

Something was different Sunday morning in Naples. McCandless wore a new running accessory – his wedding ring – and it provided plenty of inspiration. The 30-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, won the Half Marathon in 1 hour, 6 minutes and 2.6 seconds.

McCandless, a former Penn State runner, competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials last year and hopes to earn a spot in the 2020 Games. To do so, he needed to kick off 2017 with a bang, especially after going 10 minutes slower than he wanted in New York in November.

“I got married, took a nice honeymoon and started coming back,” McCandless said. “Around Mile 8, I started to push the pace and I kind of looked down at my ring. It inspired me.”

Former University of Florida runner Eddie Garcia, from Jacksonville, finished second in 1:06:16.4. Matthew McDonald, a former Princeton runner and Ivy League Rookie of the Year, took third in 1:06:50.9.

Related link: Gebre wins NDN Half Marathon women's title for third time

Related link: Tyler McCandless, Belainesh Gebre win 2017 Naples Daily News Half Marathon

Refreshed from their honeymoon just two weeks after the disappointment in New York, McCandless and his wife, Kristin McCormick, both targeted Naples to get back on track. McCormick ran in the women’s race.

McCandless became the first American-born man to win the Naples Daily News Half Marathon in 15 years.

A group of elite African runners have come to Naples in recent years, drawn by the $2,000 winner’s paycheck and the flat, fast course. Three years ago, when the half marathon became a certified qualifying race for the Olympic Trials, organizers decided to award prize money only to American citizens to increase the number of Olympic competitors.

The past 13 winners of the men’s race (last year’s event was canceled by storms) were born in either Ethiopia or Kenya, though some were dual American citizens.

Related link: Volunteers keep NDN Half Marathon running

“(Race organizers) did a very cool thing giving prize money only to Americans,” McCandless said. “It feels pretty good because I ran really fast here two years ago and only got third.”

In 2015, McCandless ran the 13.1 miles through downtown Naples in 1:03:13, a personal best. The time was just two seconds slower than the course record, but two other African runners broke the record and finished ahead of McCandless.

Argeo Cruz, 24, a past standout at Immokalee High School and Florida Gulf Coast, was the top local finisher. He placed sixth overall in 1:10:00.5. Kurt Roeser, a 2005 graduate of Naples High who also ran at Florida, finished eighth in 1:12:00.5.

While McCandless is a seasoned professional runner, runner-up Garcia is just getting started. The 24-year-old graduated from Florida last year, and Sunday was his second half marathon and first in Naples.

Garcia stuck with McCandless early in the race with a group of about six runners. The two leaders broke free at about the halfway point, and McCandless made his winning charge in the final three miles.

“After Mile 6, Tyler threw in a really big surge and I went with him,” Garcia said. “It was just me and him for about three miles or so. Then around Mile 9 of 10, he made a really strong move and I just tried to maintain after that.”

Garcia takes home $1,200 as the runner-up. It will help fund his trips to various other half and full marathons this year as he hopes to qualify for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Olympic team. Even though he is from Jacksonville, Garcia’s father was born in the Virgin Islands.

Related links: 

Organizers eager for NDN Half Marathon's return Sunday; storm canceled race last year

Maine's Piers training hard toward NDN Half Marathon

Aptly-named Karen Miles of Fort Myers a mainstay at NDN Half Marathon

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