By Jonathan Gault
August 16, 2015
FALMOUTH, Mass. — At last year’s New Balance Falmouth Road Race, Stephen Sambu pressed the pace from the gun and broke the field four miles into the seven-mile jaunt along Vineyard Sound to win by a comfortable 45-second margin, the largest since 1974. Today, the 27-year-old Kenyan used an identical strategy on a hot, sunny day and though the result was the same, the story of the race was not. Sambu had to wait until the final downhill along Falmouth Heights beach, less than 100 meters from the finish line, to make his winning move in the 43rd edition of the race, as he crossed the line in 32:17. It was Sambu’s kick that separated him from a four-man group that included Micah Kogo (2nd, 32:19) and training partners Leonard Korir (3rd, 32:20) and newly-christened American Sam Chelanga (4th, 32:21).
“I put everything over there. I just came down [the hill] hard and I pray,” said Sambu, who became the first man since Gilbert Okari in 2006 to repeat.
Sambu’s furious finishing sprint also made him $5,000 richer. For the first time, Falmouth offered an equalizer bonus known as “The Countdown.” The women’s elite race started 10 minutes before the men, and as soon as the first female crossed the finish line — that would be Burundi’s Diane Nukuri, who cruised to victory in 36:47 after breaking away just after three miles — a clock began counting down from 5:32 (the average difference between men’s and women’s times the last 10 years was 4:28; 10:00 minus 5:32 equals 4:28). Sambu crossed the line with three seconds to spare once official times were calculated (it’s two seconds in the results, which don’t account for decimals), earning $8,000 for the win plus $5,000 for “The Countdown” bonus.
“I don’t think it could have worked out better than it did,” said Scott Ghelfi, president of the board of directors of Falmouth Road Race, Inc.
Nukuri’s victory at Falmouth was a long time coming. The Flagstaff-based Burundian finished second here in 2011 and 2013 and two weeks ago placed second at the other staple of the late-summer U.S. road racing circuit, the TD Beach to Beacon 10K. This time, there was no stopping her as she broke away from Sara Hall, Amy Cragg and Ethiopia’s Sentayehu Ejigu to win convincingly by 23 seconds. Hall wound up second overall (top American) in 37:10.
“It feels great,” Nukuri said. “It was like second, third, second, third. I won little races but this is one of the best races…I mean you can’t find anything better than this.”
The men’s race was akin to a pot of water on the stove, heating up gradually before finishing at a boil — every mile was faster than the one before it. After the race was delayed 10 minutes by an accident on the course, Sambu and fellow Arizona alum Abdi Abdirahman led a big pack of men through a conservative first mile in 4:43. 2014 Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi put in a surge as the leaders wound around Nobska Lighthouse and passed the beach, but that did little to break up the pack as 13 men were still in it at two miles (9:25/4:41 split). The tall figure of Chris Derrick assumed the lead during mile three, flanked by Sambu and Peachtree Road Race champ Daniel Salel. Once they hit three miles (14:02/4:37), Sambu launched his first attack and whittled the pack down to seven men (Sambu, Salel, Abdirahman, Chelanga, Korir, Kogo and Moses Kipsiro) by four miles (18:38/4:35) as Derrick and Aaron Braun began to fade.
Sambu pressed on in earnest for the next two miles (4:34 and 4:33, respectively) along Surf Drive and around Falmouth’s Inner Harbor, but unlike last year, the pack remained resolute. With just one mile remaining, the lead pack, all clad in purple Nike or adidas singlets, comprised five men: Sambu, Kogo, Korir, Chelanga and Kipsiro (Abdirahman dropped out just after four miles with what appeared to be a muscle cramp). Even as they hit the final hill on Grand Avenue, all except Kipsiro were still there; it took a hard surge by Sambu on the downhill for him to create the separation he needed, closing out the win with a 4:31 final mile. Kogo crossed the finish line next two seconds back, followed in quick success by Korir and Chelanga, who earned top American honors two days after being sworn in as a citizen.
Quick Take #1: This was a great day for James Li
Inarguably the best U.S.-based road racing group is coach James Li‘s stable of studs in Tucson, Ariz., which includes three of the top four finishers today (Sambu, Korir and Chelanga) as well as Lawi Lalang and Bernard Lagat. The day did not begin auspiciously for Sambu, as he developed a headache on the starting line, which he attributed to the 80-degree heat. Still, he battled through it and said that he used his knowledge of the course to prevail in a tight race, waiting to make his final move after cresting the course’s last hill.
Today was a nice consolation prize for Sambu, who DNF’ed at the Kenyan World Championship Trials (he ran the 10,000) two weeks ago in Nairobi. Though he has had tremendous success as a road racer, Sambu said he was disappointed not to be in Beijing and that he plans on trying out for the Olympic team in 2016.
Quick Take #2: What a weekend for Sam Chelanga
On Friday morning in Tucson, Chelanga was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, the culmination of a five-year-long process. That night, his flight to Boston was cancelled and he debated with Li whether to even run the race, ultimately deciding that he had nothing to lose by doing so. Chelanga switched to a redeye out of Los Angeles and only grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep Friday night, but he showed no ill effects today. Though he looked to be dropping off during mile 6, Chelanga battled back and hung with the main pack the entire way, though he said his lack of a kick did him in at the end.
Still, Chelanga finished almost a minute ahead of the next American. And though his reasons for changing citizenship were motivated by personal, not financial, gains, his new nationality earned him an extra $2,000 (in addition to his $5,000 for fourth place).
Chelanga will run the U.S. 20K Championships in New Haven, Conn., on September 7, after which he will assess his options with Li. Chelanga, who owns a 27:08 personal best, would have a decent shot at making the U.S. Olympic team at 10,000 next year, but he’s also mulling the marathon, where his lack of a kick would hurt him less. If he wants to go that route, he has to act quickly as he has between now and January 17 to hit the Trials qualifying standard of 2:15:00 or 65:00.
Quick Take #3: Chris Derrick wasn’t pleased with his race today but thinks that he’s “coming around” fitness-wise
Derrick, who was running just the third road race of his career, said that his Falmouth experience was great “up until about the third mile.” Derrick said the pace didn’t feel fast but that he never felt comfortable, whether it was due to the heat or running less mileage this year as he continues to recover from an Achilles injury.
“It was just a crappy last three miles. I didn’t run very fast or very well. After I finished, I was pretty busted, pretty hot, took a while to cool down and get back to normal.”
Derrick said that he’s been happy with some of his performances this year, running 13:19 in Heusden and 7:43 in London, even though he hasn’t run more 75 miles in a week between World XC in March and Heusden on July 18.
“It’s a good test of character to get the most out of your body in those situations,” Derrick said. “I think in some of my races this year I’ve been able to do that. Today I’m not sure that I did.”
Despite today’s result, Derrick thinks his fitness is coming around and thinks that sub-13:10 (his PR is 13:08) could be possible in the right race.
Quick Take #4: Meb Keflezighi used a recent setback to his advantage
Keflezighi was doing a 12-mile workout in late July following his eighth-place showing at the Bix 7 on July 25 when his body shut down after nine miles, forcing him to walk the last three. In his younger years, Keflezighi said, he might have soldiered on and kept training, but at 40 years old he cannot afford to take those same risks and took five days off, working in a break that he initially planned to take after Falmouth.
Keflezighi said he treated today’s race as a tempo run (he ran 4:51 pace) and that he was pleased with the effort, but that he was careful not to push too hard.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t Falmouth and I wasn’t committed to it early on, I would not be here,” Keflezighi said.
Now Keflezighi will launch into serious marathon training as he’s planning on running a fall marathon before the Olympic Trials in February. Though he would not name the race, it will almost certainly be New York, as Keflezighi has run the last five editions.
Quick Take #5: Where was the Falmouth Mile?
From 1995-2014, Falmouth also put on an elite mile at the Falmouth High School track, attracting several of the country’s top domestic milers (Kyle Merber and Katie Mackey won last year’s edition). This year, the Mile was put on hiatus “while Falmouth Road Race, Inc. seeks a sponsor and explores ways to raise the Mile’s profile both locally and in the running world,” according to Ghelfi.
The women’s race played out similarly to last year’s men’s race as Diane Nukuri went out extremely hard off the line and led it wire-to-wire, dropping rivals Hall, Ejigu and Cragg with a 5:08 fourth mile and coasting to a comfortable victory. To say Nukuri never looked back would be inaccurate — she stole several glances at her rivals throughout the race — and though Hall put up a game effort, gaining back some ground on her during the final miles, Nukuri was never seriously challenged once she made her move. Hall ran mostly alone once Nukuri dropped her as she put 16 seconds on Ejigu in third. Cragg faded to fifth with Neely Gracey moving up for fourth in 37:32.
Mile 1: 5:12
Mile 2: 5:13
Mile 3: 5:11
Mile 4: 5:08
Mile 5: 5:13
Mile 6: 5:18
Mile 7: 5:32
Quick Take #1: Diane Nukuri didn’t want a repeat of Beach to Beacon
Nukuri didn’t make a point to push hard after she got a gap in the final miles, but The Countdown was always in the back of her mind, and it came to the fore once she crossed the line. With 10 seconds to go, Nukuri thought she had the $5,000 bonus but then she looked out on Grand Avenue and saw Sambu steaming toward the finish line, forcing her to settle for “only” the $8,000 first-place prize.
Nukuri was glad to have company for the first few miles but also wanted to use her marathon strength.
“Amy and Sara are such good competitors that I could get in and push and that’s what I love,” Nukuri said. “You don’t want to run behind someone on a day like this.”
Though she could have risked pushing more over the final miles, Nukuri ran cautiously, remembering that she had been outkicked at Beach to Beacon two weeks ago after she thought she dropped the field. Her concerns were unfounded this time, however, as she had more than enough to hold off Hall and the rest of the field.
Quick Take #2: Sara Hall again shows her versatility
Hall has raced every distance from the 800 to the marathon during her pro career and already this year has shown an ability to run well off marathon training, placing 20th (top American) at World XC in March less than two weeks after running the Los Angeles Marathon.
Hall is in the middle of marathon training right now (she is running one in the fall, which will be announced later) and said that she has bumped her mileage after a disappointing debut in LA.
Quick Take #3: Nobody in the U.S. can beat Amy Cragg when it comes to training partners
Cragg thought 5:15 to 5:20 pace wouldn’t be too hard today, but said she was hurting pretty badly after a first mile in the low-5:10s and that she positive split the rest of the way, which is never a good thing.
Cragg was more excited about her new training situation, which will see her spending time in Portland (Cragg and her husband, former Arkansas stud Alistair are still keeping their house in Providence). Alistair works with agent Tom Ratcliffe, who has several clients in Portland, and being on the ground there will allow him to work more closely with their athletes.
Cragg didn’t say whether she was still being coached by Ray Treacy (it appeared as if she would, but I did not ask for confirmation), but said that she’s worked out with Shalane Flanagan and some of the other members of coach Jerry Schumacher‘s Bowerman Track Club while at altitude in the past and will continue to do so occasionally in Portland. Between Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson in Providence and Flanagan and Emily Infeld in Portland, Cragg couldn’t ask for much better training partners.