**New Gender Challenge Debuts This Year**
By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
FALMOUTH, MA, USA (15-Aug) — For 43 years, the New Balance Falmouth Road Race has produced races of epic proportion. Stories of the event fill the air in this quaint coastal village, ranging from the time Alberto Salazar ran to complete exhaustion and was read his last rites (1978), to when Joan Benoit Samuelson won her unprecedented sixth title in ten years (1985). The history lives on year after year, a constant reminder of the event’s roots.
On Sunday, the race hopes to add yet another chapter to its longstanding legend with ‘The Countdown,’ a gender-based challenge that pits elite men against elite women. Earlier this year, race organizers began to develop ideas on how to spice up the competition, catering to both the elites and Falmouth‘s many spectators.
“We had to really think outside the box,” said Matt Auger, race operations manager. “Then we came up with the idea called ‘The Countdown.'”
After analyzing results of the past decade, Auger and his team found that the men’s winning time was on average 4 minutes and 28 seconds faster than the women’s winning mark.
In a nutshell, ‘The Countdown’ will be a race against the clock, giving women a 4:28 advantage. But, alas, there’s a twist. Due to Falmouth‘s unique course layout, with narrow roads from Woods Hole to Falmouth Heights, it was logistically impossible to hold a traditional gender-based challenge where the men chase down the women and the first across the line is proclaimed champion (similar to what is done at the USA 15-K Championships in Jacksonville). With multiple elite lead vehicles and only two lanes to work with, a chase was impractical, and a larger 10 minute gender gap was required (elite women start at 8:50 a.m. and the men and masses at 9:00).
Enter ‘The Countdown’ clock.
As soon as the first woman crosses the finish line, a countdown clock at the finish will begin ticking down from 5 minutes and 32 seconds. If the top male comes across the finish line before the clock reaches zero, he will take home a $5000 bonus. If it hits zero, the bonus goes instead to the first female. (The clock will start at 5:32 because the elite women begin ten minutes before the elite men and masses, thus they already have a ten minute advantage. Subtract the average time gap of 4:28 and you have a 5:32 margin with which to work with.)
Speaking to four elite athletes here today –defending champion Stephen Sambu, Boston and New York City Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, Burundian Olympian Diane Nukuri, and Colorado’s Neely Spence Gracey-– all were excited about the new element.
“I think this is a really cool addition that is added in this year. It always makes it that much more exciting at the finish line, so I think it’s going to be a really fun part of an already fun event. I’m looking forward to it and I think it’ll be really cool to see what happens,” said Gracey. “And of course I’m rooting for the girls!”
Gracey touched upon just what organizers wanted: a friendly competition where the men and women are not only concerned about their own races, but also keep the clock in the back of their mind. The gender element should, in theory, help keep the pace honest throughout. It also keeps spectators at the finish engaged when the top athletes come through.
“You got to have two watches going I guess, if you really want to do that [and win],” joked Keflezighi, who will be making his Falmouth masters debut here. “It’s definitely going to be very exciting to be a female waiting there to see if she’s going to make it by five seconds or two seconds or thirty seconds, or waiting for the last seconds to zero to say ‘I got it!’ It’s going to be another exciting part of the race, which it already is. I guess I have to cheer for the boys, or the men. It should be very exciting.”
“I hope a woman gets it!” interjected Nukuri, drawing laughs from those in attendance. “Hopefully I get to the finish first, and if I do I’d definitely dance until [the first man finished], or maybe wait until we see who gets it. Either way it’s going to be really exciting.”
Race Results Weekly posed a question to all four athletes, asking whether they thought the new challenge would alter racing tactics at all. Most agreed that they’ll focus on winning their respective gender races before eyeing the clock.
“Personally I’m not going to change my strategy, but I hope that we don’t wait until a last mile sprint. You have to keep that in mind, but also you don’t want to go out too hard,” said Nukuri. “Usually when you are competitive and do what you’re supposed to do, the time will take care of itself. And of course you have to push. I mean, I’m going to run as hard as I can through the line and see what happens.”
“You always think about the win first, then when you win it [or have it won] then you can see if you can catch the women or beat their time,” added Keflezighi, twice the runner-up here. “When you know you have the title then you can try to think about the other stuff. But never from when the gun goes off. That’s my strategy.”
Sambu, who is trying to become the first back-to-back winner since Gilbert Okari in 2006, hopes ‘The Countdown’ encourages a hot pace from the get-go. As the world leader over 10-K, he’s used to a fast pace. He knows the course from a year ago, where to push and where to back off.
“I think that everyone knows the race will be fast, and we’ll have to pick it up to get close to five minutes,” he said. Later on, Sambu told Race Results Weekly he had confidence that the men’s pack would work together to keep the pace honest, referencing the strength of fellow countrymen Micah Kogo (a two-time winner), Daniel Salel and Leonard Korir, as well as Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro.
Of note, Sambu and Nukuri have run the fastest times over the course for anyone entered in the elite field, timing 31:46 and 36:17, respectively. The difference between their two times? Four minutes and 31 seconds, just shy of the 4:28 countdown mark.
Judging from their responses, the athletes are all for ‘The Countdown,’ and think it will be a grand success no matter who wins.
“It’s going to be exciting,” said Sambu.