Leonard Korir Becomes First American to Win Falmouth Road Race Since 1988

By Jonathan Gault
August 18, 2019

FALMOUTH, Mass. — With a mile and a half remaining in the 2019 Falmouth Road Race on a muggy, overcast morning on Cape Cod, Leonard Korir thought back to the same race two years earlier. On that day, he was locked in a battle with Stephen Sambu, a rival dating back to their college days almost a decade ago, and faced a decision: put in a surge, or hold off and trust that his finishing kick could carry him down the hill on Grand Avenue and to an elusive Falmouth title.

Despite Sambu repeatedly motioning for Korir to take the lead, he chose to wait, and, in one of the greatest finishes in the 47-year history of this staple of the New England summer, Korir found himself edged out by a fraction of a second. Sambu claimed his record fourth straight Falmouth title as both men were credited with 32:14 for the seven-mile course.

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Korir ends the American drought in Falmouth

“I was still [feeling] strong [at] mile 6,” Korir said. “I was like you know what, let me just wait and then [on the] downhill I’m going to kick. But it didn’t pay off.”

Back in the present, Korir faced the same decision running along Scranton Avenue in the 2019 race. Once again, Korir and Sambu had dropped the rest of the field — including Edward Cheserek, who fell off the pack three miles into his Falmouth debut — with Sambu doing most of the leading, hitting 5k in 14:08 and five miles in 22:50.

Just as in 2017, Sambu had grown tired of leading and motioned Korir to the front. This time, he took him up on the offer, edging ahead at 5.5 miles. And once Korir saw that Sambu could not respond, he kept his foot on the gas. By six miles (27:30), Korir led by 10 meters, and he got to soak in the famous climb and descent along the Atlantic Ocean to the finish line on Grand Ave.

Just meters from the finish, with the race well in hand, Korir pumped his fists together, his recent frustration at Falmouth turning to joy. Korir had finished 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, and 3rd at Falmouth the last four years — three of those defeats to Sambu — but when he broke the tape today in 32:11, he became a Falmouth champion at last, the first American men’s winner here since Mark Curp in 1988 (Magdaleny Lewy-Boulet was the last American women’s winner in 2011).

“This race, I’ve been trying, like five times,” Korir said. “I have to win it. If I don’t win it today, I might not [have the chance to] win it again.”

Korir earned a payday of $18,000 — $10,000 for the win plus $3,000 for finishing as the top American and a $5,000 bonus for beating the gender-equalizing “Countdown” clock.

Sambu was gracious in defeat — “for Korir to win today for the first time, it’s okay; I’ve won four times here” — but had to work hard for second to hold off Cheserek, 32:29 to 32:30.

Cheserek entered the race battling a hamstring injury, and when Sambu began pushing the downhill on Oyster Pond Road at 2.5 miles, he felt it tightening up and decided to play it conservate, letting the leaders run away from him.

But by five miles, Cheserek had climbed back to third, 15 seconds behind Korir and Sambu, and while Korir would only extend the lead from there, Cheserek almost managed to catch a fading Sambu but ran out of room.

“Because I was getting so tired, I was looking back,” Sambu said. “I looked back, like almost 20 times. I see him closing the gap, closing the gap, closing the gap.”

Should he return to 100% fitness, Cheserek has the makings of a future Falmouth champion. But to do it, he will have to get through Korir, who finally has the crown and isn’t planning on giving it up anytime soon.

“Stephen, he won four in a row,” Korir said. “So even me, I want to keep training and build my legacy. Maybe win five in a row, hopefully.”

Men’s results

Leonard Korir probably isn’t moving to the marathon anytime soon

Korir, who has run 59:52 for the half marathon, is an intriguing dark horse should he choose to make his marathon debut at the Olympic Trials in February. Korir wouldn’t commit one way or another, but he seemed to be leaning against it after speaking to some of his fellow athletes.

“All those guys are saying marathon is tough,” Korir said.

My bet is Korir, who has made the last three US teams at 10,000 meters, chooses to focus on that distance again in 2020.

Edward Cheserek talks (lack of) Diamond Leagues, no update on citizenship

Cheserek, somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t run a single Diamond League race in 2019. He said he was entered to run in London on July 21, but opted to run Heusden instead as he felt that race would be faster (though Cheserek ran a PR of 13:04 to win Heusden, London actually ended up faster, with a 13:01 winning time).

Cheserek said he is heading back to Europe for a few more races, though exactly which races are a little unclear. He said he’s running a 1500 in Italy in 10 days followed by a 5,000 in Zurich — but the 5,000 in Zurich is 11 days from now and, furthermore, is the Diamond League final (which Cheserek couldn’t get in because he doesn’t have any points).

Cheserek’s agent/coach Stephen Haas clarified that Cheserek meant the (non-DL) 5,000 in Brussels, but that race isn’t a 100% certainty given Cheserek’s hamstring injury. Haas said the aim is to be healthy for the 5th Avenue Mile on September 8.

I also asked Cheserek about the status of his quest for US citizenship, and he said he had nothing new to share and will post an update at some point in the future.

“It’s up to the government, it’s not up to me,” Cheserek said. “…It is [frustrating], but at the moment I don’t want to talk about it.”

Women’s race recap: Lokedi pulls away after patient beginning

It was almost a clean sweep for the Americans today in Falmouth, as 36-year-old Sara Hall came just five seconds short of the victory on the women’s side. Instead, the win went to another Flagstaff-based runner, 2018 NCAA 10,000-meter champ Sharon Lokedi, who used a patient approach to reel in fellow Kenyans Iveen Chepkemoi and Margaret Wangari and win in 36:29.

Lokedi couldn’t remember much from the 10 minutes after crossing the finish line — she was immediately taken to an ice bath because of the heat — but 30 minutes later was in good spirits recounting her victory.

“I didn’t know it was going to be hot like this,” Lokedi said. “I knew it was going to be humid. From the beginning, I just wanted to give myself a chance. I was just like, just stay, just run your race.”

That philosophy would be put to the test immediately, as Chepkemoi and Wangari screamed to the front as soon as the starting horn blared. They built up an enormous lead, passing 1 mile in 4:58 and two miles in 9:57 — three seconds ahead of course record pace — but both would fade badly in the humid conditions.

Lokedi and Hall worked together to close the gap early before Lokedi took off during mile 3. She caught Wangari around mile 4 and blew by Chepkemoi during mile 6. Though Wangari held on for third in 36:43, Chepkemoi dropped out and would end her day in the medical tent.

“The whole time, I just kept telling myself, just keep going, keep going, you’ve got this,” Lokedi said.

Hall, meanwhile surprised herself by running 36:34 for second. Hall has a busy fall ahead of her, with the Berlin Marathon on September 29 and the New York City Marathon five weeks later on November 3, and said her plan today was simply to run marathon pace. But she got dragged to faster than that, hitting her first mile in 5:10 (2:15 marathon pace), and though she slowed slightly, averaging 5:13s for the 7-mile course, it was still a very productive day as she earned $10,000 ($7,000 for second, $3,000 for top American).

Women’s results

Sharon Lokedi interview

Lokedi said that she’s now living in Flagstaff, where she, like boyfriend Edward Cheserek, is being coached by Stephen Haas.

Sara Hall interview

Des Linden says she’ll run the Olympic Trials if her body feels up to it

Earlier this month, Linden was announced as part of this year’s NYC Marathon elite field, and in an interview with NBC Sports Olympic Talk, she wouldn’t commit to running the Olympic Trials in February.

At this point in her career, Linden, 36, isn’t planning anything beyond her next marathon. But after finishing 9th in Falmouth in 38:33, I asked her what she would need to see from herself to make it to the start line in Atlanta.

“It’s gonna be how I bounce back [from New York],” Linden said. “If the body feels like it can do another marathon, I’ll do the Trials. That’s definitely in the cards. But I hate thinking about the next thing while I’m in the middle of training for something. So all eyes are on New York and that’s the focus. But I think the turnaround’s doable. If I can come back healthy and hungry to go, I’ll definitely do the Trials.”

More: Talk about the race on our messageboard: 2019 Falmouth Road Race Thread: Edward Cheserek added to elite field 

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